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FTC Tries to Halt Spam E-Mail Operation

April 17, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Federal Trade Commission is taking an Internet spam operation to court, alleging that it flooded e-mail accounts with pornographic material disguised behind bland subject lines like ``new movie info″ and ``wanna hear a joke?″

After receiving about 46,000 complaints in the past nine months, the agency asked the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to shut down the operation, FTC attorney Steven Wernikoff said Thursday.

``When consumers open up the e-mail they’re often greeted with pictures of naked women,″ Wernikoff said. ``The deceptive subject lines enable spam to evade filters and expose consumers to unwanted and often graphic sexual material.″

Wernikoff said it is the first FTC case involving spam with deceptive subject lines. A hearing is scheduled for April 22.

In the complaint filed Tuesday, the FTC accused Brian D. Westby, of Ballwin, Mo., of sending millions of e-mails to drive business to more than 20 adult Web sites centered on one called ``Married But Lonely.″ Westby earned more than $1 million in commissions from this spam, the FTC said.

Westby could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

Roger May, 48, an engineer from suburban Houston, said he was disgusted by the unsolicited e-mails he received and concerned that his two teenage children would be exposed to the explicit images.

``It did not give me any indication from the subject that it was pornographic,″ he said. ``If I had my wife or children around they would have seen these images without me ever knowing it before I had opened it.″

The FTC has received complaints about children seeing the e-mail and people opening it at work, Wernikoff said.

Spam is a rapidly growing problem, with the anti-spam company Brightmail recording 6.7 million instances of multiple junk messages being sent out in March, a 78 percent increase from a year ago.

Beside lawsuits, companies have been developing mail filters and users have been limiting distribution of their e-mail addresses to cut down on junk mail. Yet spammers have been able to find technical innovations to circumvent these measures.

The FTC plans to hold a forum on April 30 to discuss how the government should deal with spam.

The agency said the pornographic spam in its latest case also used subject lines that read: ``I found your address,″ ``please resend the e-mail″ and ``did you hear the news?″

Consumers who selected an option to ``unsubscribe″ and stop receiving these e-mails received an error message, the FTC said.

The spam also used a practice called ``spoofing,″ where the messages contain false information about who sent the e-mail, the FTC said. Responses to the spam flooded the e-mail accounts of people uninvolved with the operation.

``It unfairly portrayed these innocent bystanders as duplicitous spammers, often resulting in their receiving hundreds of angry e-mails from those that had been spammed,″ the FTC said.

Chester County Internet Service, an Internet service provider in Coatesville, Pa., was falsely named as a sender of the deceptive spam, said Bill Hamel, president of the company. He said tens of thousands of spam e-mails sent to nonexistent addresses bounced back to the company, overwhelming its operation and forcing it to shut down e-mail service for several hours.

Hamel said some customers canceled their accounts because of the outage.

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On the Net:

FTC: http://www.ftc.gov

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