AOL puts heat on alleged Sunshine State spammers

America Online files suit against Florida-based individuals it believes sent massive amounts of spam to its members. Rival EarthLink pursues an alleged Alabama spam ring.

Matt Hines Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Matt Hines
covers business software, with a particular focus on enterprise applications.
Matt Hines
4 min read
Internet service providers America Online and EarthLink have each taken legal action against alleged spammers in the southern United States.

America Online reported on Wednesday that it has filed a civil suit against four Florida-based individuals who the company believes are responsible for sending massive amounts of spam e-mail to its members.

The giant Internet service provider said it brought the case in the U.S. District Court of Florida, Orlando Division, because the so-called "Sunshine State spammers" violated the Virginia Computer Crimes Act, the federal Computer Fraud & Abuse Act and Florida common law, by sending an avalanche of unsolicited e-mail to its subscribers. In the suit, AOL seeks damages of $1.6 million in addition to other forms of compensation, including potential asset forfeiture.

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According to Dulles, Va.-based AOL, the Florida defendants teamed up with parties in Thailand to barrage AOL members with more than 35 million spam messages over the course of several years. The company said it first became aware of the group in January 2003 via a wave of 1.5 million user complaints and immediately launched an investigation into the spammer's operations. The scheme reportedly involved an onslaught of e-mail messages loaded with hypertext links advertising low mortgage rate offers for AOL members.

As part of its investigation, AOL said it was able to procure some 40 pages of text taken from instant-messaging conversations held between the defendants and their alleged Thailand partners. In those conversations, seized under a court order, the parties openly referred to AOL as a potential "goldmine" for spam and detailed their methods for evading the company's spam protection tools.

Meanwhile, Atlanta-based EarthLink said it has taken legal action against an alleged multistate spam ring made up of 16 individuals and businesses the company believes are responsible for generating and delivering more than 250 million spam messages. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, names defendants in five states, including Florida.

EarthLink refers to the group as the "Alabama spammers" based on their use of phone lines in and around Birmingham, Ala., to conduct business. The suit also alleges that the defendants used falsified names and addresses, as well as nonexistent corporate entities, to disguise their identities, and that they sent spam directing people to Web sites that would disappear after advertising a product. Products advertised by the spammers included Viagra, herbal supplements, adult matchmaking services and spam-for-hire services.

The Florida lawsuits are not the first time AOL has aggressively pursued spammers in court. In December 2003, AOL partnered with the Virginia attorney general to produce criminal indictments of two spammers from North Carolina under the freshly minted Virginia antispam statute. AOL claims that it has filed more than 25 complaints against roughly 100 individuals and businesses it believes spammed its customers.

AOL's lawsuit further alleges that the defendants conspired to build and maintain a bank of e-mail-generating servers in an office suite in Ocoee, Fla., that were specially designed to facilitate spamming. The lawsuit contends that one defendant, James Connor, wrote code for a software application used in an attempt to evade AOL's mail filters to avoid detection. Other defendants in the suit include Winter Garden, Fla.-based Connor Miller Software, as well as Charles Henry Miller Jr. and Heidi Miller. According to AOL, the Millers are a married couple residing in Winter Garden, while Connor resides in Longwood, Fla.

Attempts to reach the defendants via telephone on Wednesday proved fruitless.

The suit also names the defendants' Thailand associates as Jonathan Beyer and Joseph Conrad. AOL alleges that Beyer, a U.S. citizen residing in Thailand, headed the conspiracy and that Conrad, also a U.S. citizen, assisted in establishing and operating Beyer's Internet operations. AOL has already taken legal action against the two individuals in a suit currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

"This lawsuit demonstrates AOL's strong and ongoing commitment to the fight against spam," Randall Boe, AOL's general counsel, said in a statement. "We will pursue spammers, their accomplices, their co-conspirators and anyone who operates on their behalf--no matter where they live. The bottom line is, if you are spamming AOL members--or helping someone who is--we will find you, and we will stop you."

Florida is known as something of a hotbed for spam-related activity, with the Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO) identifying three of the world's top 10 known spammers as residing in the state, more than any other in the United States. Several of the spammers named in EathLink's suit have been listed by ROKSO at one time or another.