First arrest under spam law could dent e-mail flood

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Charges against a man accused of being one of the Internet’s most notorious spammers could spell relief from millions of unwanted message clogging e-mail in-boxes, computer security officials said on Thursday.

“This is a great day for the Internet,” said Patrick Peterson, vice president of technology for IronPort Systems, which provides e-mail and Web security products. “Everyone involved in clapping those handcuffs on (him) are heroes.”

Robert Alan Soloway, 27, is currently being held without bail after his initial appearance in U.S. District Court here on Wednesday.

Soloway was indicted by a federal grand jury on 35 counts that include mail fraud, wire fraud, fraud in connection with electronic mail, aggravated identity theft and money laundering.

Consumers may not immediately notice much change in the amount of e-mail-borne spam, because there are other, even bigger spammers out there, Peterson said. But the long-term effect from Soloway’s arrest could be great, he said.

“The message it sends is going to have a much bigger impact than what we see in our in-boxes, which is undetectable,” Peterson said, adding that he have recently seen more aggressive efforts by federal authorities to combat the scourge.

Soloway is the first spammer in the nation to be charged with aggravated identity theft under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

His detention hearing is scheduled for next Monday. Soloway has been dubbed the “Spam King” by federal prosecutors for allegedly sending hundreds of millions of spam e-mails via hijacked networks.

“Spam is a scourge of the Internet, and Robert Soloway is one of its most prolific practitioners,” Jeffrey C. Sullivan, U. S. Attorney for Western Washington, said in a prepared statement.

According to the indictment, between November 2003 and May 2007, Soloway operated the Newport Internet Marketing Corp, which offered a “broadcast e-mail” software product, at prices ranging from $195 to $495.

Those services constituted illegal spam, or high-volume commercial e-mail messages that contained false subject headers designed to trick e-mail security systems. Spam was relayed via networks of captive computers, known as “botnets,” the indictment claims.

Furthermore, he promised a full refund to customers who purchased e-mail products if they weren’t satisfied. But customers who later complained or asked for refunds were threatened with additional financial charges and referral to a collection agency, the indictment asserts.

Spam volume actually increased in the wake of the CAN-SPAM law, peaking in July of 2004 at 94.5 percent of global e-mail traffic. The rate of spam infection of e-mail networks has fallen back since then to 76.1 percent of traffic in April 2007, according to a report by security vendor MessageLabs.

“Certainly, every spammer in the United States had better think twice about staying in the business,” Peterson said.