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Ebay wages antispam war

The online auctioneer, which posts the email addresses of its customers online, is waging a letter-writing campaign against spammers.

What started as a battle on Halloween has turned into a full-fledged fight with alleged spammers.

Online auctioneer eBay, which publicly posts email addresses of its customers on its site, is waging a letter-writing campaign against those who pull those addresses off the site and then use them to send out unsolicited email.

Ebay executives said the letters warn recipients that they could face legal action if they continue sending out unsolicited email to eBay members. The executives noted that the letters are a routine practice for the company.

But random spammers who habitually use software to scan the Web for publicly posted email addresses aren't the only ones getting the boilerplate letter.

EBay has sent letters to at least two competitors. Recently, eBay sent one such email message to rival WildAuction.

But the practice started with Onsale (ONSL), which sent out hundreds of email messages to eBay's customers on Halloween.

Onsale executives had contended that they were not spamming, but rather using the publicly posted email addresses on eBay's pages to send targeted email to eBay's customers advertising Onsale's services.

EBay executives clearly disagreed and pointed out that eBay must post the email addresses in order to run the site.

"When that happened our users had a huge amount of outcry and we had to respond," said eBay chief executive Pierre Omidyar.

Along with responding to Onsale, Omidyar said eBay also promised customers that it would take action against spammers in the future to protect its users, who now number 450,000 and record some 150,000 bids per day.

"I said we would address the issue of spam on two fronts, the first being the legal front, the second being the technology front. This cease and desist letter [to WildAuction] is part of our standard legal response," Omidyar said.

The letters usually work, he said.

EBay also is working on developing a way to make it harder to collect email addresses from pages, without making it too hard for members to email each other.

"It's not just a problem that we have," said Brad Handler, an attorney for eBay. "It's a problem I've discussed with other Web service providers. We all are feeling the effects of our users getting unsolicited email."

Handler said he sends out about five letters per week. Usually, they are answered with apologies. And sometimes, he said, he is even able to use the situation to interest the emailer in eBay.

"I've talked to dozens of business owners who have for a variety of reasons ended up sending an unsolicited email to an eBay user. I've never had a negative reaction. In a number of those instances, those people decided they were going to use eBay," he said.