DMA Spam Sting Bears Fruit

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The Justice Department is expected to announce today a series of arrests in spam cases, including the first legal actions to arise from the Direct Marketing Association-financed Operation Slam Spam initiative.


Attorney General John Ashcroft has scheduled a news conference in Washington so he can give details on 100 arrests and other legal actions against spammers, according to news reports. Details, including the number of actual prosecutions, are not known.


The New York Times reported yesterday that the cases include violations of the CAN-SPAM Act's requirements for commercial e-mail, as well as identity theft and other online fraud.


The legal actions should include 25 to 30 that came out of Operation Slam Spam, a year-old initiative the DMA undertook in partnership with federal law enforcement to hunt down deceptive e-mailers, according to an industry source. The DMA funded Operation Slam Spam to the tune of $500,000.


In a statement, the DMA said it expects the Justice Department will announce "several arrests and indictments."


The DMA's prominence in the operation could burnish the public image of the organization's role in the fight against spam. The DMA came under fire for scuttling industry best practices last year that defined spam as unsolicited commercial e-mail, instead of fraudulent e-mail.


"The problem the DMA's had has never been that they never took the hard-core spammers seriously," said Anne Mitchell, president of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy. "It's that they've never taken the action of some of their members, which some people perceive as spam, seriously."


DMA spokesman Louis Mastria said the legal actions would not wrap up Operation Slam Spam and more law enforcement actions could come as soon as next month.


"This is certainly the first visible results," he said.


The law enforcement sweep comes nearly nine months since the federal anti-spam law went into effect. Critics point out the CAN-SPAM Act has not failed to stem the flow of spam. Spam still accounts for 65 percent of all e-mail, compared to 58 percent in the month before the law went into effect, according to spam-filtering company Brightmail.


"Many of us have feared that once the bad spammers are knocked out of the way, you run the risk of seeing legitimate e-mailers flooding in-boxes," said Ray Everett-Church, co-founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited E-mail. "Direct marketers are not always known for their restraint."


At a hearing in May on the law, senators questioned why more arrests have not been made. Jana Monroe, assistant director of the FBI's cyber division, said Slam Spam had helped identify 100 "significant" spammers and targeted 50 for prosecution. She singled out the DMA for its assistance in tracking down spammers.


The legal actions could re-open the debate about how many spammers are responsible for the flood of unwanted e-mail. Spamhaus, an anti-spam organization, claims that 200 spam operations account for 90 percent of spam.


"You will have new folks rising to the challenge every time someone falls off that list," Everett-Church said. "Today's big spammers are completely different from the ones a year ago or five years ago."


Spam cases have proven difficult for prosecutors. In April, the Justice Department brought a case against three Detroit men, in what was hailed as the first federal prosecution under CAN-SPAM. The Times reported the case was quietly dropped last month, as prosecutors look for more evidence.


In another troubled spam prosecution last month, New York state attorney general Eliot Spitzer settled a civil fraud case against Scott Richter, listed as a top spammer, for $50,000, after vowing to drive Richter into bankruptcy.


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