E-Mail Spamming, Spoofing Growing 'Like Weeds in Yard'

July 7, 2008 - 8:04 PM

(CNSNews.com) - While Internet spamming and spoofing continue to grow "like weeds in a yard," one Internet expert says she is optimistic that the e-mail problems will soon be brought under control.

"Spammers have free reign at the moment, like the wild, wild west...but the combination of legislative action and information technologies is all working against spammers," said Deborah Fallows, a senior research fellow with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, part of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"[Spamming] won't be a viable business plan much longer...people are just so fed up with it," she added.

The practice of spoofing is also under attack from consumers, the Information Technology (IT) community and federal regulators. Spoofing, which involves sending out unsolicited commercial e-mails with false "from" or "reply to" addresses, is now the subject of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lawsuit and possible regulatory action. The practice can be likened to placing a bogus return address on a piece of postal mail.

Spoofing is accomplished by manipulating the Internet's mail protocols but does not require a lot of technical ability or hacking talent, according to Internet experts. There are even several websites devoted to the practice of helping people send prank emails with fake return addresses.

By using an unsuspecting person's e-mail address, the spammer can avoid e-mail bounce backs for invalid addresses and complaints by the angry recipients. The victim, the person whose e-mail address appears in the reply line, is typically inundated with angry e-mails that can number in the tens of thousands and can suffer from a damaged reputation and suspension of e-mail accounts.

"Spoofing allows spammers to sort of duck the resulting costs of the messages they send out," explained Eric Wenger, an attorney with Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

'Astronomical Increase in Spam'

The FTC has set up a national spam database and is encouraging fed-up e-mail users to forward all the e-mail spam they receive.

In recent months, Wenger said, there has been "an astronomical increase in spam messages people send us." In all of 2001, the agency received less than four million complaints, according to FTC data. Last year, that number shot up to more than 17 million, and through less than four months of 2003, the FTC says it has received more than 12 million spam complaints from consumers, nearly 110,000 every day.

Wenger cautions that the FTC is legally limited in how it can pursue the people who send out the unsolicited offers.

"Just because someone is annoying to you doesn't mean we can pursue as being unfair or deceptive under the FTC Act," Wenger explained.

"We are not going to say spam is all sleazy or bad," he added. In order for the FTC to have the legal basis to pursue spammers, the spam must be proven to involve "deception and unfairness," according to Wenger.

Last week, the FTC announced it had filed suit against Brian D. Westby, an alleged porn spammer, for violating federal "unfair" practice statutes. Westby is accused of sending innocuous-sounding e-mails with deceptive phrases in the subject line to people who unsuspectingly clicked on the e-mails to find pornography.

The FTC also accuses Westby of deception for not taking people off his lists even after they had informed him they wanted to "opt out" of further e-mails. Westby is accused of spoofing his unsolicited e-mails as well.

Wenger believes regulatory action on e-mail spamming and spoofing may be similar to the legal restrictions now in place making it illegal to send unsolicited commercial faxes. "The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 makes it illegal to send unsolicited commercial faxes unless you have had a prior business relationship with the recipient," Wenger said.

Many legal experts expect the spamming industry to rely on the constitutional protection of free speech to defend their right to blast prospective clients with e-mails, but Wenger said that approach would fail.

"Speech is protected, but commercial speech is a special subset of speech. It is protected but has to be truthful. Deception is not protected in commercial speech. Commercial speech (unlike non-commercial speech) must be truthful," he explained.

The FTC is sponsoring a workshop at the end of April on spam.

'Extremely Inexpensive to Spam People'

Fallows said that even though she is optimistic spam e-mail will eventually be controlled, she believes the practice will probably never cease because of its profitability.

"The spammers don't spend much money to get a collection of people. There is no capital going into collecting viable names. It's extremely inexpensive to spam people," Fallows said.

"Even if only a tiny fraction of the spam recipients respond," she added, "it's a worthwhile thing [for spammers] to do."

E-mail a news tip to Marc Morano.

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