April 15, 2003 8:41 AM PDT

America Online sues spammers

America Online on Tuesday said it is filing five lawsuits against individuals and companies that are allegedly purveying bulk unsolicited e-mail, or spam, to its members.

The lawsuits, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, seek at least $10 million in total damages along with court orders to immediately stop the alleged practices.

Spam, one of the most reviled by-products of the Net, creates headaches for computer users and for Internet companies such as AOL, MSN, Yahoo and EarthLink that offer e-mail as part of their services. Subscribers have routinely criticized AOL for the proliferation of unwanted e-mail in their in-boxes, causing the company to take a litigious policy towards alleged spammers.

AOL has taken spammers to court and has won lawsuits that resulted in monetary fines and a discontinuation of its practices. In April 2002, AOL won an injunction along with a "significant" monetary settlement against Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Netvision Audiotext.

Microsoft has also taken the legal route by suing alleged spammers on behalf of its popular free e-mail service Hotmail. In February, Microsoft filed a lawsuit against undisclosed defendants accused of employing a "dictionary attack," where a computer program goes through dictionary entries to fish out Hotmail account passwords.

The problem has also alerted federal lawmakers to craft policy to punish spammers. Last week, a pair of U.S. senators reintroduced a bill, called the Can-Spam Act, that would make it a federal offense to send spam using false return e-mail addresses. AOL supports the bill.

The defendants named in AOL's latest round of lawsuits are alleged to have engaged in fraudulent and misleading e-mails peddling pornography, software products, college degrees, male organ growth, steroids and mortgage leads. Some defendants are named; others are so-called John Does.

AOL said the defendants allegedly sent 1 billion e-mails that resulted in 8 million complaints among its members.

News.com's Paul Festa and Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.


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