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Internet

FTC crosses borders in Net bust

The agency says its work with six states and Canada has resulted in crackdowns on dozens of alleged Web scammers and in letters of warning to more than 500 sites.

Trumpeting its first major joint effort to crack down on illegal spam, the Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday that it has busted dozens of alleged Web scammers in conjunction with law enforcement from six U.S. states and Canada.

The agency said the sweeps have netted 63 official actions in the past six months, targeting people allegedly engaged in a variety of schemes, involving anything from anti-anthrax drug Cipro to work-from-home offers.

Calling the Internet "one of the major new areas of consumer fraud," Washington Attorney General Christine Gregorie, who took part in the effort, said the vast reach of the Internet makes it particularly easy for people to ensnare innocent Web surfers.

"We will not allow the Internet to be a vehicle for promoting one of the oldest scams in the book," she said. The other states participating in the initiative are Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming.

The FTC, which renewed its fight against spam earlier this year, said it sent warning letters to 500 sites accused of running illegal chain-letter efforts as well as 75 letters to sites that appeared not to be honoring instructions to remove people from their lists.

The law enforcement steps included asking a court to shut down sites accused of promoting illegal chain letters, reaching a settlement with a company that violated mail-order regulations by failing to promptly ship CDs. A temporary shutdown was also obtained on a Web site selling products via the Internet that claimed to cure cancer.

During a press conference Tuesday, the FTC presented Peter Fulton, a Washington resident who was one of the Web site's alleged victims. During a tearful presentation, Fulton said he spent about $1,500 on products he hoped would cure his wife's pancreatic cancer, including potions and "an unusual machine that blinked and buzzed."

"As we read this, there was hope," the high school math teacher said of the site. But he said "there was no effect whatsoever" from the products. Fulton's wife died in 1999.

The FTC announcement was designed to warn spammers that a band of law enforcement agencies is watching them and looking for improprieties. The agency has received more than 10 million pieces of purported spam in the four years since it established a spam complaint database--1 million of them in the last month alone.

However, spam is not illegal simply because it is annoying. For law enforcement to take action, unsolicited e-mail must contain an improper heading or violate consumer protection laws.

What's more, many unsolicited mailings are sent from offshore accounts, whose operators are hard to bring to justice. And many states don't have anti-spam laws.

The best course of action is "buyer beware," said Chuck Harwood, director of the FTC's Northwest region. "For some reason, people lend truth and credibility to statements when they see them on the Internet," he said.