Facebook files lawsuits against alleged spammers

Contends that company and two men profited mightily by surreptitiously accessing personal information of Facebook users

Facebook this week filed lawsuits against two individuals and one company for allegedly spamming its users and harvesting their personal information by getting them to sign up for non-existent products and services.

The lawsuits, filed Tuesday in federal court in San Jose, accuse Steven Richter, Jason Swan, and Max Bounty Inc. of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the CAN-SPAM Act and other state and federal laws.

The company is seeking compensatory, statutory and punitive damages from each of the three parties named in the lawsuits.

Facebook's lawsuits come at a time when the company is under growing pressure to clean up its data privacy practices. Just this week, for instance, Facebook found itself in the middle of a new firestorm after the Wall Street Journal reported that some of the social network's most popular applications, including FarmVille and Texas HoldEm Poker, have been sending user information to advertising and Internet monitoring companies.

In a note posted on the Facebook site today, the company called this week's lawsuits a precursor of more to come in the next "month, year and beyond. We're committed to applying continuous legal pressure to send a strong message to spammers that they're not welcome on Facebook,' the blog post said.

In court documents filed in connection with the lawsuits, Facebook described Richter as an affiliate for various Internet marketing companies. The lawsuit alleges that Richter earned tens of thousands of dollars by tricking Facebook users to visit third-party commercial Web sites.

Richter is alleged to have used more than 40 Facebook profiles and created more than 40 Facebook pages to lure people to third-party sites with promises of free gasoline and free credits on games such as FarmVille. According to Facebook, Richter used his Facebook pages to lure 388,000 users to different sites for just one Internet marketing firm alone. He is estimated to have earned 44 cents for each Facebook user he sent to various third-party sites.

Swan, too, is accused by Facebook of being an affiliate marketer who earned money by tricking users to visit other commercial Web sites and buying products from them.

Swan is alleged to have harvested Facebook user data by tricking users into participating in various online quizzes and surveys with titles such as "Take the IQ Challenge." "Which 7 Deadly Sin Are You" and "Are you Stressed." He is also accused of getting Facebok users to spam each other by luring them to cut and paste a java script in their browsers that automatically blasted a message to all of the Facebook user's friends.

MaxBounty is described by Facebook as the "mastermind" of an affiliate marketing scheme. The company is alleged to have conspired with and encouraged individuals to set up fake Facebook profiles and pages for the purposes of luring Facebook users to third-party sites.

A request for comment made via the contact form on MaxBounty's Web site was not immediately returned.

Facebook has secured major wins in similar lawsuits in the past, though it's unclear yet how much those victories have helped deter spamming activity on its networks.

Earlier this month, a Canadian court upheld a massive $873 million judgment that was awarded by a U.S federal court in 2008 against Adam Guerbuezn, a Canadian citizen. Guerbuezn was accused by Facebook of sending out more than 4 million pornographic spam messages over Facebook. The $873 million award was the largest ever under the CAN-SPAM Act.

Facebook also secured a $711 million judgment on similar charges against Sanford Wallace, a previously convicted spammer, last year.

Though the chances of the company actually collecting any money on such victories are virtually non-existent, Facebook itself is hoping that its lawsuits will at least deter others from the same kind of activities.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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