FTC launches antispam attack, but critics skeptical

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Trade Commission, stepping up its attack on fraudulent junk e-mail, today announced actions against seven people who perpetrated get-rich-quick schemes. But analysts and antispam advocates questioned whether the FTC has the resources and tools to tackle this problem beyond going after the most flagrant violators.

The seven people named today were nabbed in an FTC sting operation for allegedly operating a pyramid scheme that told participants to send $5 to each of the four or five other people on a list. The operators unwittingly baited law enforcers in the letter by claiming that the scheme was legal and urging recipients to contact the FTC's associate director of marketing, Eileen Harrington, if they had questions.

"It's illegal, it's illegitimate, and they should not participate," Harrington said at a briefing today.

The FTC settled its charges against the seven defendants with final judgments that bar them from having anything to do in the future with any pyramid scheme and that require them to return any money they collected through the scheme.

FTC officials characterized such moves as part of a new program to crack down on spam, one that will go after deceptive e-mail claims and headers, fake "opt-out" links and other devices. These messages are "intrusive, unwelcome and annoying," said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris. "We want it off the Net."

But the FTC plan was quickly met with skepticism.

"If they are going to limit their enforcement activities to get-rich-quick schemes, then the systemic problems aren't going to be addressed," said Ray Everett-Church, counsel for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail in San Jose.

Robert Mahowald, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said that despite today's announcement, he's "pessimistic about these [actions] being the evidence of a full-fledged assault."

Everett-Church said he has yet to see the FTC pursue cases that "require a little more depth of investigation and greater resources and little less of a slam-dunk." That could mean, for instance, taking action against people and companies that sell the software used to create forged headers that can hijack e-mail servers, he said.

Without aggressive action, analysts doubt that increased enforcement will have much impact on the rapidly rising volumes of spam.

Brightmail Inc., a San Francisco-based company that employs both technological and hands-on monitoring techniques for fighting spam, said that in 2000, the number of spam attacks for a one-month period was about 300,000. By the end of last year, it had increased to 2 million a month, and last month, it jumped to 2.8 million. A spam attack can range from a few hundred to many thousands of e-mails.

Francois Lavaste, a vice president at Brightmail, suspects that the most recent rise in spam traffic may be due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., which saw a rise in volume in general e-mail traffic. Spammers, he said, are acting in similar fashion.

"It's a great time to use that medium that people are using," said Lavaste.

Currently, 18 states have some form of antispam law on the books. California, for instance, requires labeling such as" ADV" or "ADV:ADLT," on the subject line to indicate that an e-mail contains advertising or adult advertising. But that labeling requirement is the exception; state laws typically make it illegal to use false header or routing information. Many states also allow an Internet service provider to sue a spammer who violates its e-mail polices. A few, such as Iowa, require instructions on how to opt out of receiving e-mail from the sender in the future.

There are a number of bills pending in Congress that would apply some versions of these requirements nationally, but the FTC hasn't taken a position on them.

In previous congressional testimony during the Clinton administration, FTC officials called self-regulation the most desirable policy and said it was committed to attacking spam through law enforcement. The FTC won't comment on pending legislation unless asked to do so by Congress, said Harrington.

Related stories:

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon