Bill would make spammers' e-mail tactics a crime

Passage would give Md. one of the most powerful measures in the U.S.

General Assembly

April 15, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Last summer, when Del. Brian J. Feldman's campaign e-mail account was hijacked by a spammer who used it to send ads for a pornographic Web site, he was flooded with replies.

"Some said, `I'm interested, but I want more information,' " recalled Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"Some said, `Please remove me from your distribution list.' And some - the people from my district who knew me - said, `Have you gone crazy?' "

Feldman had not gone crazy. He was another victim of the computer worms that have put countless e-mail accounts at the service of spammers whose junk e-mail is driving computer users crazier every day.

His experience - which he described as "a potential catastrophe for a political career" - gave an extra push to a bill the General Assembly enacted Monday night in the frantic closing hours of the session.

It would give Maryland one of the toughest state anti-spam laws, one fine-tuned to combat spammers' latest tactics, including the one that caught Feldman.

"Maryland now has the strictest and most powerful anti-spam law in the country," said Nicholas J. Graham, a spokesman for America Online, which helped draft the bill and lobbied for it. He said only Virginia's anti-spam law, which took effect in July, has similar sweep.

The Maryland measure, which will take effect Oct. 1 if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signs it, as expected, would be the first state anti-spam statute enacted since the federal CAN-SPAM law took effect Jan. 1.

Like CAN-SPAM, the Maryland Spam Deterrence Act would not ban unsolicited commercial e-mail. Instead, it would prohibit tricks that spammers use to hide their identities, such as relaying spam from someone else's e-mail account and falsifying return addresses. It would also outlaw sending e-mail to random addresses harvested from the Web.

Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat who sponsored the legislation with Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the bill was crafted to keep up with the fast-evolving tactics used to send spam.

"There's a constant technological arms race between the spammers and the Internet service providers," said Quinter, a lawyer specializing in technology and telecommunications.

The Maryland measure would impose penalties of up to five years in prison - 10 years for a person previously convicted of a spam violation - and permit the state attorney general to seek civil penalties of $25,000 a day.

"A lot of Internet service providers have found that lawsuits are not enough to stop the spammers," Garagiola said. "This will make a spammer think twice, because he can actually go to prison."

By permitting the attorney general and local police to file charges, the measure would beef up the forces arrayed against senders of illegal bulk e-mail. "It's basically putting more anti-spam cops on the street," Garagiola said.

To be covered by the Maryland measure, a spammer merely has to send illegal spam to Marylanders. Virginia has charged two North Carolina men with violating its spam law, a prosecution Garagiola and Quinter described as a model for Maryland.

Like other e-mail providers, AOL has become alarmed by spam, which has become so pervasive that customers are canceling their accounts.

To publicize its longstanding anti-spam efforts, the company is about to announce which of its customers has won a 2002 Porsche Boxster sports car - confiscated from a California spammer who couldn't pay the judgment AOL won from him.

Sophisticated filters used by the Virginia-based company block about 2 billion spam messages a day - about 80 percent of all incoming e-mail, said Graham, the AOL spokesman.

Every day, AOL temporarily shuts down the service of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of customers whose accounts have been hijacked by spammers, he said.

That's what happened to Feldman, but he had his service turned backed on quickly.

"In all candor, I talked to one of the AOL lobbyists in Annapolis, and he took care of it," Feldman said.

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