EarthLink wins 'Buffalo Spammer' case

The ISP wins $16.4 million in a federal court judgment against a man who allegedly sent nearly a billion unsolicited commercial e-mails over EarthLink's networks.

Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff writer, CNET News
Dawn Kawamoto covered enterprise security and financial news relating to technology for CNET News.
Dawn Kawamoto
3 min read
EarthLink on Wednesday won $16.4 million in a federal court judgment and injunction against the "Buffalo Spammer," but similar court victories have yet to deter spammers from using EarthLink's networks.

EarthLink, the third-largest Internet service provider Internet service provider (ISP) in the nation, won monetary damages and injunctive relief against Howard Carmack--a Buffalo, N.Y., resident whom EarthLink labeled the "Buffalo Spammer." The case, filed in November in U.S. District Court in Atlanta alleged that Carmack had used stolen credit cards, identity theft and other illegal means to purchase hundreds of Internet accounts in order to send out 825 million unsolicited commercial e-mails.

The Carmack case ranks among the three largest spamming judgments that EarthLink has received to date. Last year, EarthLink won a whopping $25 million judgment against K.C. Smith, who allegedly sent out more than 1 billion unsolicited commercial e-mails over the company's networks. And in 1998, the courts awarded EarthLink a $2 million judgment in its case against Sanford Wallace, the former "king of spam."

Multimillion-dollar court judgments, however, have yet to deter spammers from using the networks operated by EarthLink and other ISPs.

"We believe it will take a combination of litigation, technical solutions and legislation to stem the tide of spam. We support a multifaceted approach," said Carla Shaw, a company spokeswoman.

Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, ISPs can use the criminal statute to go after people whom they believe are sending unsolicited commercial e-mail via their networks, provided that the ISPs have a policy that prohibits sending spam. Such actions by a spammer would in essence be like breaking and entering, an attorney representing EarthLink said.

Over the years, EarthLink has filed about a half dozen cases involving multiple spamming rings, said Pete Wellborn, an attorney with Wellborn & Butler in Atlanta, which represents EarthLink. Currently, Wellborn noted, EarthLink has about four or five pending spamming cases. Each case involves a multitude of spamming rings, he said.

"None of the parties from past cases have gone to jail," Wellborn said. "But I think a number of spammers will be deterred by the financial judgments. Even if they file for bankruptcy, they will still be liable for paying the judgments."

A new tool
Turning its attention from spammers to the spam itself, EarthLink also said it is testing a new "permission-based" spam-blocking technology and plans to roll it out to subscribers by the end of May.

Most ISPs and e-mail services offer technologies to block spam. But in a cat-and-mouse game, the spammers regularly figure out how to bypass the blocks.

EarthLink said that, at this time, 40 percent to 70 percent of all incoming e-mail hitting its mail server is spam. The company uses Brightmail's antispam filtering tool, called "the spaminator," to filter out much of that spam before it reaches its subscribers' in-box. But as the spammers tweak their messages, a greater number of e-mails are able to bypass filters.

To thwart this adaptive maneuvering, EarthLink said it will roll out its new SpamBlocker technology later this month. Using a permission-based system, SpamBlocker automatically generates an e-mail in response to all incoming mail. The original sender must then respond to a question in that e-mail before the message is delivered to its intended recipient. Once authorized, that person's e-mail is placed on a permitted list.

EarthLink said it will continue to use the spaminator technology, while unleashing the SpamBlocker on e-mail that gets passed through the filter.

"Filters can only work so effectively before you wind up blocking almost every piece of e-mail," an EarthLink spokesman said.