FTC warns spammers

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Senior staff of the Federal Trade Commission delivered a warning July 14 to Internet spammers, saying that use of phony return addresses alone could be grounds for an FTC probe.

Until now, the FTC has acted against Internet marketers and spammers only when messages offered a misleading or illegal claim or profit, promoted a pyramid selling scheme, or violated consumer laws.

Eileen Harrington, associate director of the FTC's division of marketing practices, said a false address itself could be enough to trigger an investigation, regardless of what the message says. Jodie Bernstein, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, cautioned that while the message could start an investigation, the commission has not yet determined whether a false address alone is sufficient to issue a complaint.

Deidre Mulligan, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, called on government agencies including the FTC and the Department of Justice to ``push'' their enforcement on false addresses and said the false addresses can "cause damage to the reputation" of various Internet providers.

Ms. Harrington said the FTC's first priority is still acting on messages that are scams and cost consumers directly, while Ms. Bernstein said the scams are similar to thoseconsumers have seen before in other forms of media.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," said Ms. Bernstein.

Meanwhile, an ad hoc working group of Internet and computer-related companies that includes America Online, Microsoft, IBM and others, presented the FTC with a report on ``unsolicited commercial e-mail'' that suggests a combination of technical measures and ``public policy'' to control Internet spam. The report also suggested some sort of reorganization of the Internet's cost structure that would make the sender pay more for the cost of sending spam mail.

Copyright July 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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