Web Informant #120, 27 July 1998:
Sue A Spammer Today


In our book on "Internet Messaging" I take a very fatalistic attitude towards spam or unsolicited commercial email. Marshall Rose and I tell our readers to just grin and bear it. Certainly, spam has gotten more prevalent since I last wrote about it a year ago in WI#73. And spammers have gotten more clever as well: When Yahoo introduced its free email system for the general public last fall, there was a period of time where most of the public didn't realize that anyone could obtain any mailbox@yahoo.com. Yahoo's own employees, which previously had this domain address, were moved to user@yahoo-inc.com. What happened was predictable: some enterprising individual obtained the mailbox "contest-winner@yahoo.com" or some such moniker. This con artist managed to get people's credit card numbers emailed to this mailbox until discovered and stopped.

Well, I am happy to report that someone is taking the law literally into his own hands and fighting spammers. This article originally appeared in the Macintosh networking newsletter TidBITS, written by my friend Adam C. Engst. For information on how to subscribe to Adam's newsletter, where to find back issues, and how to obtain free subscriptions, go to http://www.tidbits.com. Take it away, Adam.

On Friday, 17-Jul-98, with the help of long-time TidBITS reader and Seattle attorney Brady Johnson, the four TidBITS editors living in Washington State filed suit against WorldTouch Network for numerous violations of Washington State's new anti-spam law (see "Washington State Outlaws Spam" in TidBITS-422). WorldTouch sells the Bull's Eye Gold email address collection tool, a $259, Windows-based, Web spider program that visits Web pages, following links and recording the email addresses it finds.

Appropriately enough, WorldTouch advertises Bull's Eye Gold by repeatedly sending unsolicited email advertisements extolling the program's virtues to vast numbers of Internet users. Currently, TidBITS staff members have received nearly 100 identical copies of the advertisement since 11-Jun-98, the day Washington's law went into effect.

The Washington anti-spam law prohibits "the sending of commercial electronic mail messages that use a third party's Internet domain name without the third party's permission, misrepresent the message's point of origin, or contain untrue or misleading information in the subject line." Messages must be sent from a computer located in Washington State or to a resident of Washington State, and the law places the burden of determining residency on the senders of unsolicited commercial email.

Examination of the Bull's Eye Gold spam shows that WorldTouch uses randomly generated bogus return addresses purporting to originate from large Internet service providers run by IBM, MCI, Sprint, or AT&T. The spam is generally routed through mail servers in Europe and also includes false routing information in an attempt to avoid being traced. In almost all cases, the spam contains no actual subject line in the message header; instead it includes one in the message body where email programs don't recognize it and thus won't display it in a mailbox window.

We believe ours will be the first case to test Washington's new law, which in turn is one of the country's first anti-spam laws that understands the issues involved and provides damages to spam victims. Our goal in filing the lawsuit is twofold.

First, we hope to prevent WorldTouch Network from continuing to send out vast quantities of spam. Informal polls indicate that many of our acquaintances have also received Bull's Eye Gold advertisements as well, so putting an end this particular spam campaign will help numerous people.

Second, we hope that a successful conclusion to the case will send a message to current and future spammers that the act of sending unsolicited commercial email is not only socially unacceptable, but also a violation of Washington State law. Plus, if the Washington State law proves effective in this and other cases, we hope that other states, and eventually other countries, will enact similar legislation. From April of 1997 to April of 1998, I personally received 2,300 pieces of spam, and from April of 1998 to the present, over 1,100 pieces, or about 10 per day. Those 3,400 messages total about 15 MB of disk space and have consumed significant quantities of my time.

For more information on the suit, including links to the full complaint and the text of the Washington State law, visit this Web page.

[This essay originally appeared in TidBITS #439, 20 July 1998 and is reprinted with permission.]

David Strom
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