Jail time could raise the bar for spammers

The prison sentence handed this week to a spammer in New York signals that officials are prepared to get tough on deceptive unsolicited commercial e-mail, but is unlikely to halt the practice, observers said.

'Right now, there is a low barrier to entry for spamming,' said Jake Jacoby, CEO of Singlefin Inc. of San Diego.

The tools are cheap, and although profit margins may be thin, volume can be high enough to make it profitable to a wide range of advertisers.

'What this will do is create a deterrent for individuals by setting consequences,' Jacoby said. 'What it is not going to have any effect on is the professional spammers around the world.'

The big-volume pros often are located in other countries where enforcement of U.S. laws is difficult, and the profits are high enough to make the threat of prison an acceptable risk.

Howard Carmack was arrested in May 2003 and convicted last month in Erie County, N.Y., of sending 825 million bulk e-mails using stolen identities and forged addresses. He was sentenced this week to 7 years in prison, which could be reduced to 3.5 years for good behavior.

Carmack sent his spam from an account with EarthLink Inc. The company won a $16.5 million judgment against him in April 2003.

It is notable that Carmack was prosecuted not under an anti-spam law, but under existing forgery and identity theft laws. There is a federal anti-spam law now in place, and although it overrides most existing state anti-spam legislation, some new state laws are also being passed.

A bill signed into law Wednesday by Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich has been called the nation's toughest. Spammers who use false e-mail addresses could face up to 10 years in jail and fines of $25,000 per day under the law.

But the sheer volume of spam indicates that legislation alone is unlikely to halt the flood. Technology through improved filtering and other techniques will continue to be needed.

Singlefin provides enterprise e-mail filtering for about 6 million end users, filtering between 500 million to 1 billion messages each day.

Jacoby said between 80 and 90 percent of messages are spam, up from about 50 percent last year. A year before that, the level was about 20 percent, he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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