Thursday, October 23, 2008


Spammers in court again

More catching up; today, week-old news that a U.S. district court has frozen the assets of a group of spammers and ordered them to stop their operations:

The Federal Trade Commission won a preliminary legal victory against what it called one of the largest spam gangs on the Internet, persuading a federal court in Chicago on Tuesday to freeze the group’s assets and order the spam network to shut down.

The group, which used several names but was known among spam-fighting organizations as HerbalKing, sent billions of unsolicited messages to Internet users over the last 20 months, promoting replica watches and a variety of pharmaceuticals, including weight-loss drugs and herbal pills that supposedly enhanced the male anatomy, according to the commission.

“This is pretty major. At one point these guys delivered up to one-third of all spam,” said Richard Cox, chief information officer at SpamHaus, a nonprofit antispam research group.

(Here’s the FTC’s press release on the case.)

This gang is at the forefront of spam technology, with a large zombie network, or “botnet”, and worldwide operations — the investigators cite the group’s connections to Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Russian, and Canada, in addition to the United States. The FTC worked with the FBI and with their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand (one of the principals, Lance Atkinson, is from there).

The group sells “medicine”, both real and fake, including “male enhancement” pills containing sildenafil (Viagra), hoodia remedies, and prescription drugs shipped from India. According to the Times, the FTC says that the spam operation “cleared $400,000 in Visa charges in one month alone.” Think about that: how many people out there are responding to this spam by actually buying the products? Do you wonder why there’s so much spam? Do you shake your head and say that no one pays attention to this stuff? Think again.

If things work the way the FTC would like, we’ll be seeing less spam about these things now. That seems unlikely, though, except for the briefest transition period as others take over. I agree with Trend Micro’s Paul Ferguson, quoted in USA Today: “Someone else will fill the void. While it’s great they caught these guys, the last time a major spam king was busted, the spam increased.” I don’t know that I specifically expect it to increase because of this, but there’s just too much money in spamming for one prosecution and one injunction to stop much.

Also, this isn’t a conviction, but only a temporary injunction — the order is for them to stop their operations while the court case proceeds. There’s no guarantee that it’ll end in a conviction.

Nevertheless, I will stress that it’s great they caught these guys, and it’s another case that shows that the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 is effective, even with its flaws.

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