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6 suits target spammers

Alliance of 4 top providers is suing dozens of senders

Time Warner Inc.'s America Online unit, Microsoft Corp., EarthLink Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. — the four largest U.S. Internet mail providers — sued dozens of junk e-mail senders in a second wave of lawsuits under a new U.S. law designed to curb spam.

The six lawsuits filed in California, Georgia and Washington target senders of unwanted commercial e-mail peddling pornography, prescription pills, cheap mortgages and other products, the companies said in prepared statements.

"AOL and our members continue to make spam-fighting a priority, and we continue to use the legal process on their behalf to help put a lid on the worst, most active spammers — no matter where they are or how they send their unwanted junk," AOL general counsel Randall Boe said.

It's the second round of complaints over junk e-mail filed by the Anti-Spam Alliance, founded in April 2003 and led mainly by the four companies.

AOL filed two suits in federal court in Alexandria, Va., naming 20 senders who use instant messages and chat rooms to deliver messages and 10 senders peddling controlled substances including Vicodin and other prescription drugs. AOL didn't identify the senders.

"Popping a pill prescribed by a spammer is akin to online 'Russian roulette' or online trick-or-treating — you never know what you're going to get," Boe said.

The explosion of unwanted messages has become a major expense for businesses and a source of annoyance for Internet users. U.S. companies spent $785 million last year to block spam and protect their networks from viruses, according to the research firm Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

AOL, the world's largest Internet service, said its lawsuits were based on over 2 million complaints from members, including AOL Europe and AOL Canada users.

The targets of the companies' suits are accused of spoofing the domains of all four Internet service providers, rerouting e-mails, designing messages to circumvent spam filters and attempting to collect and resell consumers' names and contact information.

Yahoo said it received 142,000 complaints related to unwanted e-mails from East Coast Exotics Entertainment Group Inc. and Epoth LLC. The company's suit, filed in federal court in San Jose, Calif., accused the companies of disguising their identity and using sexually explicit subject lines to send unsolicited sexually oriented e-mails.

The suits were filed under the "CAN-SPAM Act," which took effect Jan. 1. The law, Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003, increased the penalties and set additional limits on bulk e-mails. The law allows e-mail service providers to seek damages of between $25 and $100 for each piece of spam.

It also authorized the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to consider developing a "do-not-spam" registry that would be modeled after the "do-not-call" law passed last year targeting calls from telemarketers.

Most of those named in EarthLink, AOL and Microsoft's lawsuits are identified only as "John Does." The companies said they will be able to track down the people sued.

"We do have ideas of who we are dealing with in terms of names and addresses," said EarthLink's chief privacy officer Les Seagraves during a news conference. "By filing John Doe lawsuits, it gives us discovery and subpoena power."

EarthLink sued 50 "John Does" who used illegal e-mails to advertise cheap loans and prescription drugs.