Government wants to shut down Internet spam operation that sent e-mail porn


Friday, April 18th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The junk e-mail accumulating on Roger May's computer seemed innocent enough at first with typical spam subject lines like ``payment declined'' and ``did you hear the news?''

But when May opened the messages, he was greeted with graphic pornographic pictures and links promoting adult Web sites.

``It did not give me any indication from the subject that it was pornographic,'' said May, 48, an engineer from a Houston suburb with two teenage children. ``If I had my wife or children around they would have seen these images without me ever knowing it before I had opened it.''

May forwarded the spam to the Federal Trade Commission, which added the e-mails to a collection of about 46,000 others from the same spammer. Prompted by those complaints, the agency is trying to shut down the spam operation.

``The deceptive subject lines enable spam to evade filters and expose consumers to unwanted and often graphic sexual material,'' FTC attorney Steven Wernikoff said Thursday.

The agency filed a complaint Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The agency accused Brian D. Westby of Ballwin, Mo., of sending millions of e-mails to promote more than 20 adult Web sites centered on one called ``Married But Lonely.''

Westby earned more than $1 million in commissions from this spam, the FTC said.

A telephone number for Westby could not be located.

A federal court hearing is scheduled for April 22, Wernikoff said. He said it is the first FTC case involving spam with deceptive subject lines.

Spam is a rapidly growing problem, with the anti-spam company Brightmail recording 6.7 million instances of multiple junk messages being sent out in March, a 78 percent increase from a year ago.

Beside lawsuits, companies have been developing mail filters and users have been limiting distribution of their e-mail addresses to cut down on junk mail. Yet spammers have been able to find technical innovations to circumvent these measures.

The FTC plans to hold a forum on April 30 to discuss how the government should deal with spam.

The agency said the pornographic spam in its latest case also used subject lines that read: ``I found your address,'' ``please resend the e-mail'' and ``wanna hear a joke?''

The FTC has received complaints about children seeing the e-mail and people opening it at work, Wernikoff said.

Consumers who selected an option to ``unsubscribe'' and stop receiving these e-mails received an error message, the FTC said.

The spam also used a practice called ``spoofing,'' where the messages contain false information about who sent the e-mail, the FTC said. Responses to the spam flooded the e-mail accounts of people uninvolved with the operation.

``It unfairly portrayed these innocent bystanders as duplicitous spammers, often resulting in their receiving hundreds of angry e-mails from those that had been spammed,'' the FTC said.

Chester County Internet Service, an Internet service provider in Coatesville, Pa., was falsely named as a sender of the deceptive spam, said Bill Hamel, president of the company. He said tens of thousands of spam e-mails sent to nonexistent addresses bounced back to the company, overwhelming its operation and forcing it to shut down e-mail service for several hours.

Hamel said some customers canceled their accounts because of the outage.