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Alleged spammer on hot seat again

A direct marketer becomes the target of a New York attorney general lawsuit, which alleges the company sent 500 million e-mails to people who did not request the messages.

The New York Attorney General's office filed a lawsuit Monday against an alleged junk e-mailer, in the latest crackdown on unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged MonsterHut, a Niagara Falls, N.Y.-based direct marketer, with sending 500 million e-mails to people whom it falsely claimed had requested the material.

"Every day New Yorkers are being inundated with unsolicited commercial e-mail," Spitzer said in a statement. "Some of the spam is a vehicle for fraud; some of the spam is inherently fraudulent...This lawsuit is the next battle in our continuing fight against online fraud and an attempt to help consumers maintain control of their e-mail in-boxes."

MonsterHut could not be immediately reached for comment.

The suit adds to a long-running dispute between MonsterHut and PaeTec Communications, the Internet service provider MonsterHut used to host its Web site and shuttle e-mail to millions of recipients. Earlier this month, a New York state appeals court granted PaeTec permission to discontinue Internet service to MonsterHut on the grounds that it violated its contract and PaeTec's acceptable-use policy by sending spam. The decision reversed an injunction that earlier had prevented it from cutting service to the direct marketer.

The charge of the New York Attorney General's office is aligned with other government efforts to stamp out spam. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission launched a campaign to fight fraudulent e-mail. Already, that agency has announced several spam-related busts, including thwarting dozens of alleged Web scammers in conjunction with law enforcement from six U.S. states and Canada.

Lawmakers are also on a fast track to pass a bill that would help deter spam. Earlier this month, anti-spam legislation was approved and sent to the floor by the Senate Commerce Committee with unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans. If passed, the bill would give the FTC the authority to impose fines up to $10 each on e-mails that violate existing state laws against spam, with a cap of $500,000.

Spitzer's lawsuit, filed Monday in New York Supreme Court, charges MonsterHut CEO Todd Pelow and Chief Technical Officer Gary Hartl with fraudulently representing the company's marketing service. The suit attacks claims that the company obtains permission from consumers before it sends e-mail to their addresses, a practice known as "opt-in." According to the complaint, the company's e-mail lists are only partially opt-in and include many unwitting recipients.

The suit seeks a court order preventing MonsterHut from sending unsolicited e-mail through other ISPs based in New York. It also aims to enjoin MonsterHut from falsely representing its business and to require the company to disclose how it obtained all of its consumers' e-mail addresses. In addition, the suit asks that MonsterHut's Pelow and Hartl pay civil penalties and court costs for its violations of New York's consumer protection laws.