Florida files multimillion-dollar spam suits

Civil charges filed against two Tampa men charged with running a spam operation carry up to $24 million in potential fines.

The Florida Attorney General's office has filed its first claims under the state's antispam law, charging two men with masterminding a scheme that marketed fraudulent online businesses via e-mail.

The office of Attorney General Charlie Crist has filed civil claims against Scott J. Filary, 25, and Donald E. Townsend, 34, representatives said on Monday. The Tampa residents are accused of running an operation that generated over 65,000 deceptive e-mails since 2003, including 48,000 messages sent after the Florida Electronic Mail Communications Act took effect on July 1, 2004. The defendants face up to $24 million in fines.

Like the federal Can-Spam Act, the Florida law prohibits the distribution of unsolicited commercial e-mail that contains false or deceptive subject information, or that is sent from invalid e-mail addresses. Under the law, violators face a penalty of up to $500 for every illegal e-mail message they send to Florida residents.

The state said the e-mail campaigns distributed by the two men advertised more than 75 Web sites that engaged in fraudulent or illegal business activities, including unauthorized sales of pharmaceuticals and cigarettes and services for illegal downloading of copyrighted movies.

Attempts to contact the two defendants at publicly listed phone numbers in Tampa were unsuccessful.

"Spam is a pervasive and growing threat to unsuspecting computer users everywhere," Crist said in a statement. "The spam itself is illegal, but it is made even worse when it seeks to rip off Florida consumers. Florida's antispam law was adopted precisely to stop operations such as this one."

Crist praised Microsoft for its aid in tracking down the purported spammers. The software giant said that dummy accounts set up at its Hotmail Web-based e-mail service were used to help track the individuals' spam campaigns. Microsoft said its antispam team, which has also worked with officials to launch lawsuits in New York, Texas and Washington, began discussing the case with Crist's office in November.

The five-count Florida civil complaint, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court and prepared by the attorney general's Economic Crimes Division, alleges that Filary and Townsend violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act through the use of fraudulent Web sites, in addition to breaking statutes regulating sales of pharmaceuticals and cigarettes.

Microsoft attorneys praised Florida's approach.

"We're convinced that strong actions like those being taken today by the Florida attorney general will help make illegal spam a thing of the past," Nancy Anderson, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, said in a statement. "We're happy to help and delighted this strong action is being taken to protect consumers."

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