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ISPs crack down on spam

Service providers are turning up the heat on junk emailers, resorting to fines and lawsuits to stop the influx of spam.

These days, it is not a question any more whether Internet service providers will fight spam. The question is how they will do it.

Today, for instance, a San Diego company announced that it is suing alleged spammers, accusing them of using its network to send out junk email. And this comes on the heels of EarthLink officially announcing its several-month-old policy of fining people $200 who send spam from their network.

These are just two examples of how companies are taking a hard line--or are at least trying to appear tough--against junk emailers.

Back in the old days--say, six months ago--the fight against spam was mostly limited to a few large service providers and a cadre of dedicated Netizens.

Today it has grown into a budding industry: companies now sell antispam products and ISPs tout their antispam efforts to attract customers. But they are also fighting spam for another reason: junk email is costing them, collectively, millions of dollars per year, by most estimates. Both incoming and outgoing junk email clogs up servers, sometimes slowing down service to customers. Most companies have at least one full-time person dedicated to fighting spam. Some, such as EarthLink, have full staffs.

EarthLink last April instituted a policy whereby anyone sending spam from its network could be charged a $200 fine. The company started enforcing the policy in September. Since then, it has fined hundreds of spammers, according to Harris Schwartz, the company's information security administrator.

Some have fought against the fine, claiming it is illegal to automatically charge their credit cards. But Schwartz said that EarthLink's lawyers did their homework before enforcing it and that when he explains the situation to banks and credit card companies, they pay.

And it may be an idea that is catching on. Schwartz said that in the last two weeks he has received calls from several other ISPs asking if the fine is working.

It is, Schwartz said. "We have billed hundreds of accounts. We're not really having a lot of people that are coming again, whereas before, we would cancel someone and they would come back and do it again. Since we did the fine, we're only seeing maybe 1 percent come back."

Meanwhile, EarthLink, similar to other companies, is still fighting incoming spam. Many companies filter email according to headers, but others are turning to the courts to fight against spammers.

America Online (AOL), perhaps the greatest target of spam because of its size and because its members' email addresses are largely public, has sued spammers in court.

Other companies also are getting into the act.

Today, SimpleNet, a low-cost ISP in San Diego, said it filed suit in United States District Court against a series of small San Diego-based companies and individuals, to seek an injunction against spam. SimpleNet also is suing for revenue lost when it says it tried to track down the spammers, and the company is claiming that its reputation was hurt by it.

SimpleNet contends that the defendants were using its system to send spam and refused to stop after they were told to do so.

It is an increasingly common complaint. And from the looks of things, ISPs are stepping up their efforts to combat junk emailers.

SimpleNet is also asking the county district attorney to file criminal charges against the company.

"The named defendants have orchestrated an intricate and highly deceptive plan to defraud SimpleNet and its customers," according to SimpleNet's legal counsel.