FTC drawing the line on spammers

An FTC-led investigation led to warnings being sent 100 alleged spammers, telling them to stop immedidately. Plus, it identifies the most likely targets.

A coalition of government regulators led by the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday announced a crackdown on online spammers and scammers.

Altogether, the regulators announced they had filed more than 30 enforcement actions and had sent letters to about 100 alleged spammers warning them to cease sending the unwanted and often fraudulent commercial e-mail messages. Additionally, the regulators announced the results of an investigation into spam, concluding that Net users who post their e-mail addresses in publicly accessible places, such as on chat sites or newsgroups, are highly likely to receive spam as a result.

The regulators' action was the third such FTC-led initiative this year to combat spam, noted Brian Huseman, a staff attorney at the FTC.

"The FTC and its partners are stepping up law enforcement and consumer education on this topic," Huseman said.

The FTC trained its sights on spammers in January, announcing that it would begin taking legal action against those who sent deceptive e-mail messages. In April, the agency along with six U.S. states and Canada announced they had filed 63 enforcement actions and had sent warning letters to 500 sites accused of sending illegal chain letter scams. The FTC announced a similar enforcement action in July.

Although states such as California have enacted laws prohibiting spam, there is no comparable federal law. Despite this, the FTC has the power to combat deceptive practices, advertisements or outright fraud.

If a company promises in an e-mail to allow customers to "opt out" of receiving further messages but doesn't provide a legitimate opt-out address, the company could run afoul of the FTC. Likewise, the agency can take steps to quash pyramid schemes online or offline.

Legal actions taken by the FTC usually take the form of civil, not criminal, complaints that force parties found guilty to pay restitution and cease their activities.

As part of Wednesday's announcement, the FTC said that it had filed a complaint against Brian Silverman of Manhattan for allegedly defrauding bidders on eBay. Silverman, who sold laptop computers on the online auction giant's site, defrauded more than 200 bidders out of about $300,000 starting in January, said Ann Weintraub, an attorney with the FTC.

Silverman asked bidders to pay him with cashier's checks, money orders or wire transfers, meaning that they had no recourse once he didn't ship their computers, Weintraub said. The FTC is seeking a preliminary injunction against Silverman, whom eBay has suspended twice, she said.

"I think that the best thing for people to know is that they should look for sellers that accept credit cards. That's your best protection," she said.

Attacking spam
With spam becoming a growing problem that is overloading corporate servers as well as individual's mailboxes, lawmakers, regulators, companies and consumers have been taking increasingly desperate measures to combat it. Among the solutions have been laws outlawing spam and attempts to blacklist Internet providers seen as spam-friendly. Some Internet users have even turned to small claims courts to file suit against alleged spammers.

But the responses to spam have drawn criticism themselves. Some critics have argued that state-enacted antispam laws violate free speech or the U.S. Constitution's interstate commerce clause, although a California appeals court earlier this year upheld that state's antispam measure. Meanwhile, blacklists have been criticized for blocking access to innocent sites as well as those of spammers.

In an effort to study spam, the FTC and state regulators set up 250 e-mail addresses and posted them on various places on the Internet. Of those addresses that were posted on chat sites, 100 percent received unsolicited e-mail messages, the FTC said in a statement. Meanwhile, 86 percent of addresses posted on newsgroups and 50 percent of those posted on free personal Web pages received spam, the FTC said.

Spammers appear to be getting the e-mail addresses by using automated harvesting programs that comb Web sites looking for "@" signs, the FTC's Huseman said.

"If consumers post their e-mail addresses in public places on the Internet, these harvesting programs will pick them up," he said.

In addition to the FTC, regulatory agencies involved in Wednesday's announcement included the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts; the New Hampshire Department of Justice; the attorneys general of Connecticut, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont; and consumer protection departments in New Jersey, New York City and New York state.