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OFT gains powers to seize spammers' PCs

Launch of a network of consumer protection agencies, including the Office of Fair Trading, will make it easier to catch cross-border spammers
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) will gain the power to seize computer equipment it suspects is being used to perpetrate cross-border internet scams, the OFT has told ZDNet UK.

Its powers have been brought about by the creation of a network of enforcement agencies called the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network, which was launched on Wednesday by the EU commissioner for consumer affairs, Meglena Kuneva.

The network makes use of the Regulation on Consumer Protection Cooperation legislation, which was passed in 2004. The last three years have been spent forming the network of agencies to take advantage of this legislation.

"The EU [Regulation on Consumer Protection Cooperation] will give us new tools to track down and take action against scammers in other states," said Mike Haley, head of the OFT Scambusters team. "It will allow us to seize, remove and retain articles or documents which an officer reasonably suspects have been used in breach of customer protection laws. I interpret that to include computers and servers used in spam [scams]."

The OFT had previously been hampered in its efforts to deal with spam scams directed against other countries. Because sending spam is a civil, not a criminal offence, the OFT had only civil injunctive powers, so it could not seize computer equipment it suspected of being used to spam.

While the OFT admits that it does not yet have staff with the necessary skills to combat electronic scams, it is waiting for the results of an internal study of internet shopping behaviours before formulating a plan to address skills issues. The report is due to be released in the spring.

"We still require internet-competent investigators. We do need additional resources, but we're waiting for the results of the review. We could set up a dedicated unit [to investigate electronic scams], or co-ordinate further with Trading Standards," added Haley. 

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