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State Prosecutors Trying to Delete Spam

Internet: The attorney general's office hopes to use a 1998 law to save residents from annoying e-mail solicitations.

September 28, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

State prosecutors are taking their first swing at curtailing the daily barrage of unwanted e-mails received by California residents.

They have sued a Los Angeles-area company, PW Marketing LLC, which allegedly has sent millions of junk advertisements via the Internet in recent months. The company and its operators could be fined at least $2 million if the state wins, according to prosecutors.

Other companies and individuals involved in the practice commonly known as "spamming" are also under investigation, state officials said.

But Paul Willis, who prosecutors said is one of the operators of the company, boasted Friday that officials could not hurt him.

"They can shut me down. I don't care," he said.

"The worst thing they can do is get a civil judgment against me," he said. "I'm not dumb enough to keep any assets in my name," he said. "Neither is Claudia," he added, referring to Claudia Griffin, who is named in the suit as the company's co-operator. The two live in Canyon Country, according to court papers.

Individuals have used the state's 1998 anti-spamming law to sue--sometimes in small-claims court--to stop unwanted commercial solicitations. Friday's civil lawsuit against PW Marketing, however, is the first attempt by Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's office to enforce the law.

Under California law, unsolicited commercial e-mails must be designated on the subject line with an "ADV" for advertisement or "ADV:ADLT" for adult advertisement. They also must contain a toll-free telephone number or valid e-mail address for consumers who want to stop all future e-mails from that company, and firms must honor consumers' requests to have their e-mail address removed from their lists.

Each violation carries a civil penalty of up to $2,500.

As part of the statewide enforcement efforts, consumers are being asked to forward illegal e-mails to the state attorney general's office for possible prosecution. To help in their efforts, state prosecutors have created a form on their Web site, ag.ca.gov/spam/, for filing spamming complaints with the office.

"Spamming is the scourge of the Information Age. It burdens the Internet system, costs individuals and businesses an estimated $8 million a year and is extremely annoying to those who find their e-mails clogged with electronic junk mail," Lockyer said in announcing the suit. "In filing this action, we are sounding a warning that we will track down and prosecute those who send illegal spam."

According to the attorney general's lawsuit, PW Marketing solicited consumers to buy an online book called "Guide to the Professional Bulk Email Business" for $39 that would provide readers with information on "stealthing capabilities ... anonymous servers

Prosecutors allege the defendants violated the state's spam law, used a false address in advertising, failed to disclose required information and engaged in untrue or deceptive advertising and unfair business practices.

Willis denied "most of the allegations," saying he hired another company to send out the e-mails for him. He said he closed down his company three months ago and that he and Griffin are getting out of that business.

The case was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court because residents of that county alerted authorities to the alleged violations.

While state prosecutors are aware of many potential violators, Deputy Atty. Gen. Ian K. Sweedler said a case must first be built. "I had to find evidence that [the e-mails] were actually received by residents in California," he said. "I can't file a complaint just based on suspicion."

The challenge in prosecuting such cases is twofold. First, the evidence--e-mails most people delete without a second thought--must be collected from dozens of consumers, establishing clear violations of the law, Sweedler said. The second stumbling block is locating the perpetrators and tying them to the evidence.

Most spammers use forged routing information to make it appear as though they are sending e-mails from outside of the country when, in fact, they originate elsewhere, Sweedler said. They also tap into Internet service providers without authorization, making it more difficult to track them, he said.

In this case, Sweedler said he got a break because PW Marketing took orders from customers using a Canyon Country fax number. He declined to say how many alleged violations he has gathered against that company, but said the latest is dated Sept. 8.

In January, the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco upheld the constitutionality of the spam law, saying it did not burden interstate commerce.

In that case, attorney Ira P. Rothken of San Rafael represented the defendant, Friendfinders Inc., which was sued by Mark Ferguson for allegedly sending him unsolicited e-mails that were deceptive and misleading.

Rothken said the law does not ban unsolicited e-mails but rather requires senders to format the e-mails. The allegations against PW Marketing, he said, "are much more serious than sending spam" because they include deceptive business practices.

With the help of activists involved in anti-spamming efforts, Sweedler said, his office has received 100 to 200 forwarded e-mails daily from consumers, for a total of about 6,000 to date.

The office is seeking examples of spam received by California residents and delivered via servers in California that give an indication that the company is operating in California, such as a local phone number or address.

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