Federal regulators accused eight companies Wednesday of hiring others to send illegal e-mails with pornographic messages to tempt consumers to visit adult Internet sites.
The government said five of the firms had already agreed to pay nearly $1.2 million to settle the allegations, making it among the biggest government crackdowns on pornographic e-mail operations.
The Federal Trade Commission described the practice as "electronic flashing" and said at least some of the unwanted e-mails were sent to children. The threat of children unwittingly receiving smut in their inboxes helped drive the U.S. government to impose restrictions on sending commercial e-mails last year.
The FTC said the messages were not prominently marked "sexually explicit," did not include instructions for consumers to block future e-mails and did not include a postal address, all required under federal law.
Consumers complained about receiving the pornographic e-mails and forwarded copies of the messages to a special e-mail address set up by the FTC (email@example.com), said Jonathan M. Kraden, an attorney with the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "We received thousands of messages," Kraden said.
The FTC said the companies did not send e-mails directly to consumers but operated affiliate programs, paying others to send unwanted messages to drive Internet traffic to adult websites. The FTC said that under the Can Spam Act, defendants in such cases are liable because they paid others to send e-mails on their behalf.
The FTC said it directed the Justice Department to file civil lawsuits against three of the companies: T.J. Web Productions of Henderson, Nev.; Cyberheat Inc. of Tucson, Ariz.; and Impulse Media Group Inc. of Seattle. The lawsuits seek unspecified payment to the government for "every violation" of the federal anti-spam law.
The attorney for T.J. Web Productions, Lawrence G. Walters of Altamonte Springs, Fla., said the company was still negotiating with the Justice Department. Walters said there were "legitimate concerns and legal variables" over the government's claims. "If necessary, our client is prepared to litigate those issues," he said.
Executives with Cyberheat did not return telephone messages. An executive with Impulse Media Group, Seth Schermerhorn, declined to immediately comment.
The FTC said companies in four of the cases agreed to settle civil claims against them. BangBros.com Inc. of Miami agreed to pay $650,000; MD Media Inc. of Bingham Farms, Mich., agreed to pay $238,743; APC Entertainment Inc. of Davie, Fla., will pay $220,000; and Pure Marketing Solutions of Miami and Internet Matrix Technology Inc. of New Orleans will together pay $50,000, the FTC said.