The spam wars have escalated with a high-profile lawsuit filed last week by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly against a ring of spammers that authorities call among the world's largest - having allegedly sent computer users millions of unsolicited messages.
The move against the so-called "Internet Spam Gang," accused of luring consumers to buy everything from pirated software to pornography, was hailed as another victory for consumer rights.
With some estimates showing that half of all e-mail sent each day is spam, law enforcement has increasingly stepped in. The Federal Trade Commission has lodged several recent complaints, and states such as Florida, California, and Massachusetts are leading the way in their own jurisdictions. Last summer, Mr. Reilly became the first state attorney general to file a lawsuit under the federal CAN-SPAM Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2004.
Still, victory in this technology age is elusive. While domestic spammers have been deterred by CAN-SPAM and aggressive moves by the states in recent years, the law does not reach across borders. Much of the spam that Americans receive in their inboxes comes from the Bahamas, Europe, or the Ukraine.
Those violators who do reside in the US tend to be underfunded and underground. The result, as one expert puts it, is a version of the "Whack a Mole" game: Hammer one spammer down, another pops up.
"It's a little bit like tilting at windmills, but you've got to do it; you've got to try," says David Strickler, CEO of MailWise, a Boston company that culls spam from the mail flow. Mr. Strickler says that states need to keep following the lead of attorneys general like Mr. Reilly, who has made spam cases punishable and highly public. "But it will take this lawsuit, and a hundred thousand other lawsuits, to make a tiny dent."
At the very least, the rate of prosecutions under both federal and state laws is ticking upward, experts say: A recent civil suit in Florida charged a group with registering 350 domains, operating 75 websites, and hawking everything from tobacco to pirated movies.
The prosecution that led a Loudoun County, Va., judge to sentence Raleigh spammer Jeremy Jaynes to nine years in prison in April came out of that state's increasingly aggressive computer-crimes unit, which works out of an FBI field office in Richmond.
Washington State and Florida, among others, have tough antispam laws that allow prosecutors to charge operators as much as $500 per spam e-mail.
Yet it's a risk many spammers are willing to take, police say. "It could be a housewife or a student sitting in the library," says Bob Breeden, a chief investigator at the Computer Crime Unit of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which handles 400 to 500 digital crime investigations a year. "Whether it's a porn website or someone trying to get business share, they pay people to push out spam for them, and it literally could be anybody."
A Pew study recently found that the advent of Internet filters has lessened the frustration of spam, at least at the inbox level. But the sheer volume of such mail affects the bandwidth - or capacity - of the Web, which in turn affects the bottom line of many companies, including internet service providers (ISPs).
Perhaps the most frustrating part about spam for many businesses isn't the annoying pitches, outrageous claims, or inexplicable nonsense of many unsolicited e-mails, but that the money spent to combat the unwanted digital fodder is believed to by far exceed any proceeds that spammers actually get from their enterprises.
"Spam is annoying and expensive, and that's why people want to bring out the big guns," says Mary Cronin, a strategic- management professor at Boston College.
Many were hoping that CAN-SPAM would be the M-16. But critics say it has many flaws. First, by regulating spam, it also legitimizes the practice. Others say the law, in effect, supercedes stronger state laws, limiting the ability of consumers to punish their digital tormentors. Instead, power is put in the hands of state and federal bodies in almost all cases.
"If it had been replacing A- or B+ laws with C+ ones, that would be one thing. But we got at best a D- federal law," says John Mozena, cofounder and vice president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE). "[Consumers] lost good legal tools that they had under state laws."
The situation in Boston, where a group of mostly eastern European spammers were sued with the help of Microsoft, paints a sobering picture of the challenge for US prosecutors: the offshoring of Internet crime and the difficulties of combating it across time zones and borders. Indeed, US gains make only a slight dent in the global wireless world of spam, experts say.
Chasing those who illegally use fake addresses to peddle questionable goods and services can literally take investigators to the corners of the earth, Mr. Breeden says - including a lot of places that scoff at US subpoenas.
"US spam originators go through offshore resources because it's harder to track, it allows them to get around some spam filters by using new sending sources, it's often cheaper, and finally the state of the law is more in flux," says Anne Mitchell, the director of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy in San Jose, Calif.