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Anti-spam lawyers drawing cheers and jeers

They are accused of exploiting Utah law that was repealed

From "cheap Viagra" to cheating wives, the epidemic of e-mail spam has countless office workers wanting to reach into their computers and grab spammers by the neck.

For Salt Lake attorneys Denver Snuffer and Jesse Riddle, fighting spam has become a career. The two have filed more than 1,000 lawsuits against a variety of companies, alleging those companies sent their clients unsolicited e-mails hawking a spectrum of products and services.

But these two spam-fighting crusaders are not without their own controversy. Some have accused them of not only capitalizing on what seems a noble cause, but also of exploiting a Utah anti-spam law that got so out of control it was repealed about two years after it was approved.

The Utah Legislature passed the anti-spam bill in an attempt to stem the invasion of spam — some of it pornographic or sexual in nature — from the in-boxes of Utah citizens. The bill required that any e-mail soliciting or selling products include "adv" in the subject line and that the e-mail offer a way for people to have their e-mail addresses taken off a company's list.

The law also classified spam as unsolicited e-mail sent to someone without a prior business relationship with the company, such as agreeing to accept e-mail promotions while filling out an online registration form.

Any spam sent to a person gave that person the right to file a civil suit against the company, under Utah's former law. Although damages were limited to $10 per e-mail, the law also allowed for thousands in attorneys fees to be paid if the receiver of the spam was victorious in court.

Utah's anti-spam law resulted in a flood of anti-spam suits in the courts. One Sandy court had so many attorneys waiting for their anti-spam cases to be called that the court reportedly had to issue numbers.

Attorney Randy Dryer said the law was a disaster that Snuffer and Riddle took advantage of. Dryer said he represents 45 companies that have been sued by Snuffer and Riddle. Dryer calls his companies "legitimate folks snared in an unwary trap" that was Utah's law. Many were small businesses that only sent e-mails to people who had previously consented to receive their promotions for CDs, clothing or other products, none of which were pornographic, he said.

"Everybody wants to get rid of spam, and there are clearly spammers in the world," Dryer said. "(Snuffer and Riddle) clothed themselves as 'we're the great consumer defenders,' and I think that's a bit disingenuous."

Dryer said Snuffer and Riddle sent out form letters to his companies, offering to settle the cases at $6,500 a pop. He said some paid the settlement rather than bothering with the expense of having to travel to Utah to fight the suits.

Dryer said many of the people filing lawsuits turned out to be staff members and other attorneys from Snuffer and Riddle's own law firm.

Snuffer said he does not hide the fact that some of his plaintiffs are fellow office workers. He also believes he is doing something worthwhile in fighting spam.

"We were looking at a volume of 50,000 spams," Snuffer said.

One client, he said, was a county employee whose job was seriously affected by unwanted e-mails.

"Her job essentially turned into an e-mail occupation. A third of her day was spent deleting spam, and it was infuriating her," Snuffer said.

Simply put, his clients were tired of it and trying to hit back, Snuffer said.

The Wall Street Journal spotlighted Snuffer and Riddle's lawsuits in June 2003 as an example of what can go wrong when a state's anti-spam legislation is not properly written. In addition to small companies, the two attorneys also have hit such corporate giants as Verizon Communications, eBay Inc. and Columbia House for allegedly sending spam.

Since then, the U.S. Congress has passed a federal anti-spam law, which trumps state laws. The Utah Legislature also has repealed its law. Yet a legacy of anti-spam suits continue to wind their way through the Utah court system. Snuffer estimates there are still about 200 such suits pending.

One such suit, against Redmond Venture Inc., went before the Utah Court of Appeals last week.

Redmond attorney Stephanie Pugsley said her company has strict policies about sending unsolicited e-mails to people. Snuffer's firm argued Redmond had contracted with third-party people who made money by sending out e-mails, some of them unsolicited. Pugsley countered that if third-party people violated Redmond's policy, they shouldn't be held responsible.

"We don't know who sends these e-mails and whoever did should be liable," Pugsley said.

Snuffer contends Redmond still should be held liable. The appellate court is expected to issue a ruling in the next few months.

Pugsley told the justices she finds Snuffer and Riddle's suit ironic because Redmond Venture is a developer and seller of anti-spam software.