Consumer Groups Unite in Call for New FTC Spam Rules

Calling spam “the crack cocaine of marketing,” three consumer groups yesterday urged the Federal Trade Commission to issue new rules expanding its definition of unfair and deceptive trade practices to combat unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail.

In a formal petition, the Telecommunications Research and Action Center, the National Consumers League and Consumer Action called on the FTC to include in its definition of unfair and deceptive trade practices the misrepresenting of a commercial e-mail's sender, subject or content; failing to provide reliable contact information or a reliable opt-out system; or sending e-mail to someone who previously opted out or to whom sending spam is otherwise prohibited by law.

To date, the FTC has focused on combating fraudulent claims made within unsolicited commercial e-mail, said Samuel Simon, chairman of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center, Washington.

“There is no rule at this time … that describes the system that we're asking for,” he said. “There is no requirement that there be a way to contact the sender. There is no general requirement for a reliable opt-out system.”

The representatives urged the FTC to act before consumers begin to turn away from the Internet.

“Spam is not one of those things market forces will correct magically on its own,” said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, San Francisco. “Spam e-mail really is the crack cocaine of marketing. It's cheap, readily available and irresistible to the addicts that use it over and over.”

Increasing amounts of spam may cause consumers to “turn their backs on the enormous education power of the Web,” McEldowney said. “It would be a crying shame if consumers ended up less able to educate themselves as the result of spam e-mail abuses.”

As part of the effort, the groups posted the petition at and urge consumers to submit spam “horror stories” to be forwarded to the FTC as evidence that increased action is needed.

According to Susan Grant, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League, 21 percent of bogus loan offers, 24 percent of work-at-home schemes, 28 percent of phony credit card offers, 36 percent of business-opportunity scams and nearly all of the so-called Nigerian money scams are initiated by unsolicited e-mail.

“But I want to stress that even if the product or service is legitimate, it's not fair to trick people into reading your messages by misleading them about who you are, where you are and what you're selling,” she said. “It's also unfair to send your messages to people who don't want to receive them.”

The news conference to announce the petition included testimony from a small-business owner who said spam eats up an hour of her time each day. An AARP representative in attendance said that group backs the petition.

In response, the FTC issued a statement from J. Howard Beales, director of the commission's bureau of consumer protection.

“The FTC is concerned about the proliferation of spam affecting consumers, and we look forward to reviewing the petition,” Beales said. “In every spam proposal we have seen, vigorous law enforcement is key. We have brought numerous cases against deceptive and misleading spam practices, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.”

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