AOL Files Spam Suits

By Brian Morrissey

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America Online has expanded its legal assault on unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail flooding its 27 million members' in-boxes, filing a handful of lawsuits against spammers the company says are responsible for 8 million customer complaints.

The five suits are against 12 companies and individuals and seek a total of $10 million in damages. They are the latest move in the AOL Time Warner unit's aggressive fight against spam, which ranks as the ISP's No. 1 customer complaint. AOL has also provided buffed-up tools to allow customers to identify and stop spam from reaching their in-boxes, while also supporting legislation to stem the tide of unsolicited e-mail.

The spam suits, filed in the past few days in U.S. federal court in Alexandria, Va., ask for an immediate halt to the alleged spammers' activities. AOL accuses the defendants of violating both Virginia anti-spam laws and federal computer-fraud laws for sending out e-mail offers for weight-loss drugs, pornography, and cut-rate mortgages.

AOL said it targeted spammers using fraudulent methods, such as fake e-mail headers, for sending messages.

"Our members have been reporting millions of pieces of spam to us every day, and every time they do that they help us collect the evidence we need to track down the spammers," said Randall Boe, an executive vice president and general counsel at AOL. "To us at AOL, spammers will continue to be targeted as 'public enemy number one'."

The legal offensive against spammers is AOL's first since an early effort nearly two years ago, when it filed a flurry of suits against over 100 defendants. Fellow ISPs MSN and EarthLink have also said they intend to ramp up their legal action against spammers.

The aggressive postures by ISPs have caused complaints by some legitimate e-mail marketers that their messages can be mistakenly labeled spam. Some residential broadband users have recently complained that AOL has blocked their mail because they use public relay mail channels.

The AOL suits also point to one issue with addressing the spam problem through the courts: AOL names defendants in only two of the five cases, since it could not ascertain the identities of the others.

One of those named is George Moore of Linthicum, Maryland, who has been vilified as a notorious spammer. AOL claims Moore's company, Internet Marketing of Maryland, along with 14 affiliates, bombarded AOL members with offers for anti-virus software.

Last week, Moore lost a court case against an anti-spam advocate who posted his address and phone number on the Internet. Moore had complained that posting the information constituted harassment, since it led to threatening phone calls from irate e-mailers.

Another lawsuit was filed against Michael Levasque and ten unnamed individuals for e-mail offers for a variety of pornographic Web sites.

The other three cases, however, are against John Does, illustrating the difficulty in actually tracking down spammers, who can easily disguise their identity or operate outside the country.

AOL's campaign against spam has gained speed since the launch of AOL 8.0. The ISP has reported that it intercepts a billion messages a day, and members use the new "report spam" button 4 million times daily.

In addition, AOL joined Yahoo! in supporting federal anti-spam legislation introduced last week. The CAN-SPAM Act, which has fallen short of approval two previous times, would give ISPs more avenues for taking spammers to court.

AOL said it has sent out hundreds of cease and desist letters, which are meant as a warning to spammers that they could find themselves in the ISP's legal crosshairs.