January 7, 1998 8:50 AM PST

AOL sues more spammers

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America Online (AOL) is once again taking spammers who plague its system's members to court.

Today, the online giant filed suit against three junk emailers in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in an attempt to curb spam, a fact of life on AOL about which members increasingly complain. One of those companies, TSF Marketing, was closely connected with a group that last week had threatened to post a list of AOL members to its Web page in retaliation for AOL not allowing it to spam its members.

AOL is asking the judge for an injunction to prevent the companies from flooding its members with junk mail.

This is just the latest battle in AOL's year-long war against junk email.

Although it has won several victories, spammers continue to target AOL's 10 million members, who tend to be newer to the Internet and more receptive to junk email. Since spam costs the sender nearly nothing, a junk emailer only needs a handful of responses to make money.

Spammers also target AOL because email addresses are readily available by either plucking them off the service themselves, known as "harvesting," or buying one of the many lists of AOL members being sold. Members who spend any time at all in AOL's chat rooms, the most popular area on AOL, quickly find their email boxes flooded with junk email advertising everything from get-rich-quick schemes to links to pornographic pages.

Parents have been complaining that their children who spend time in chat rooms are sent links to pornography on the Web, to which they would have ready access if the sites are not blocked by filtering software.

But even if the sites are blocked, parents have complained about the graphic nature of some of the ads.

It was not clear what kind of spam the companies targeted by AOL today were allegedly sending.

The companies named in the suit are: IMS of Knoxville, Tennessee; Gulf Coast Marketing of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and TSF Marketing and TSF Industries of Riverside, California, according to AOL.

Earlier this month, AOL faced off with an organization of marketers, National Organization of Internet Commerce (NOIC), that had threatened to post a list of millions of AOL email addresses if AOL didn't allow it to use the system to spam its members.

NOIC was threatened with a suit by AOL and flooded with complaints by members. It rescinded its threat to post the addresses earlier this week.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the president of NOIC, Joseph Melle, also is the president of TSF Marketing, which is in the business of selling email lists with up to 25 million email addresses for $239. His brother, Damien Melle, who works for the NOIC, said he has a personal AOL account, which would give him access to chat rooms, forums, and AOL directories that contain millions of addresses.

Spammers are constantly selling lists of AOL member names, but this was the first time a spammer had threatened to post the list for free in an attempt to force AOL to allow it to spam.

While AOL has filters in place in an attempt to stop spam from reaching its members, spammers know how to bypass those filters.

Now the online giant is increasingly taking its cases to the court system, where judges have been sympathetic so far.

Last month, AOL won a court order to block bulk emailer Over the Air Equipment, which allegedly sent pornographic email.

Over the Air Equipment also dropped its challenge to the order barring it from spamming and agreed to pay AOL a substantial sum in damages, according to AOL.

In that suit and others, judges have ruled that spammers have no constitutional right to send email, as some have claimed.

In today's suit, AOL accuses the three companies of sending tens of thousands of unsolicited email messages to the company, according to AOL.

AOL demanded that they stop, but each company refused and "used a number of deceptive techniques designed to evade AOL's junk email detection and filtering mechanisms, including forging 'aol.com' within their email messages so the messages falsely appear to originate from an AOL member," according to the company.

Junk emailers often forge addresses to fool members and to keep their own email servers from getting clogged with returned email and angry replies.

The suit also charges that in addition to defeating AOL's technology filters, the use of "aol.com" creates the misperception among AOL members that AOL permits the highly criticized practice of sending unsolicited bulk email, according to AOL.

AOL also is charging in this suit that TSF Marketing and TSF Industries have violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in their alleged harvesting of AOL screen names.

 

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