April 17, 2003 11:31 AM PDT

FTC targets porn spam operation

The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on a pornographic spam operation that it says has grossed more than $1 million in commissions and nearly 50,000 consumer complaints from a recent bulk e-mail campaign.

The government agency this week asked a district court to bar a Missouri man from further sending e-mail that contains deceptive subject lines, bogus reply information, and sexually explicit material designed to drive commerce to an adult Web site.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, charges that the millions of e-mail already sent violate the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive and misleading acts in commerce.

"We want the court to order a permanent bar to the deceptive practices," said FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell. She said the agency's spam-research database has received 46,000 copies of the unwanted messages and complaints from Web surfers in recent months.

The case is the FTC's latest clampdown on spam. The agency has filed about 50 related spam complaints so far, and it has not lost a case yet, Farrell said.

The newest suit is the first to target deceptive subject lines. The defendant, Brian Westby, used benign subject lines such as "New movie info" to encourage people to open sexually explicit messages urging people to visit the adult Web site, "Married But Lonely," according to the complaint. Especially harmful, children or employees of companies with policies prohibiting such material at the workplace could be exposed to the spam in some cases, the complaint said.

Legal experts say that such lewd e-mail could open up a can of worms at corporations if it goes unchecked. Porn spam could begin to crop up in sexual harassment complaints from employees offended by the material, they say. Even if companies aren't the source of such messages, they could be liable for hefty civil fines if managers know that porn spam is a problem and don't move to address it.

Farrell also said that the Westby complaint is its second to address "spoofing," or e-mail that uses false "reply to" or "from" information that makes it appear that an innocent third party is the sender. Westby's e-mail allegedly contained false sender information so that when people replied to the senders, it generated thousands of undeliverable e-mail sent to these third parties. "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," according to the FTC.

The federal agency is "leaving the option open to see disgorgement of any ill-gotten gains if that's appropriate," according to an FTC representative. Westby is based in the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin.

 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.