Trying to prevent further damage to its reputation, free e-mail provider Juno Online Services announced last week that it was suing five organizations for allegedly forging its name in spam mail.
"Juno is apparently a commonly forged address," said Juno President Charles Ardai. "It might be the first lawsuit on this issue. It's the specific problem of people forging our real or fictitious e-mail address."
In the case, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Juno is seeking $1 million from each the following: Strippers Inc., Beverly Hills, Calif.; IMF, Knoxville, Tenn.; Global Information Services, Clearwater, Fla.; Phoenix Interactive, Hermosa Beach, Calif.; and Scott Allen of Export Sales, Somerset, N.J.
Spam marketers have taken to disguising their e-mails with a fake return address, often using the address of a free e-mail service like Juno or HotMail, or America Online, which reports 10 million subscribers. Fake addresses are also used because bulk e-mailings often contain addresses that are outdated or inaccurate, causing a good percentage of the mail to bounce back to the fake account, jamming the ISP's servers.
In addition, "all the complaints go to an innocent third party," Mr. Ardai said, while in fact Juno has nothing to do with it, he added. "[Spamming] is a practice we actively prohibit." Juno has set several technical pitfalls in place to block spammers: It has blocked individuals' ability to send out e-mail to more than 50 people at a time. It has also tried to make it impossible to "bounce" mail, or relay it off Juno's server, which gives mail the appearance of coming from Juno. "If it ever comes to our attention the individuals have found a way to do this, we terminate their account," Mr. Ardai said.
EASY SPAM FEATURES
Juno had not only been plagued with complaints from spam mail victims in the last few months but, Mr. Ardai said, it recently discovered bulk e-mail software for sale on the Web that features "Forge an e-mail to Juno" as an easy option.
Juno isn't the only service turning to the courts. In the last six months, America Online has sued a string of spammers, most recently winning a preliminary injunction to prevent Las Vegas-based Over the Air Equipment in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., from spamming its subscribers. Over the Air not only circumvented AOL's mail controls, but ignored users' requests to be taken off e-mail lists and copied an AOL trademark on its site to make it appear as if it had AOL's endorsement.
"We've really stepped up our efforts in the last few months," said George Vradenburg, AOL senior VP-general counsel, who said the company expects to file more lawsuits in the next three weeks. "The problem has picked up in volume because in part the Internet is really catching on and more people are out there trying to make a buck."
Of the 8 million to 9 million pieces of Internet mail AOL processes daily, Mr. Vradenburg estimated between 5% and 30% could be junk mail. Counting AOL e-mail, it processes 20 million pieces of mail a day.
AOL MAIL CONTROLS
AOL recently has made Mail Controls available to its users that enable people to block certain domain names or accept only certain names. Spam "is the No. 1 issue raised by our members these days," said Matt Korn, senior-VP operations at AOL, who oversaw the development of the controls and admitted, "it's not the end solution," but that they're a step in the right direction, especially in protecting children.
Eric Arnum, editor of E-Mail Messaging Report, tracks spam mail and said he doesn't have great faith in AOL's Mail Controls. "It's kind of like MCI's `Friends & Families' program taken to an extreme," Mr. Arnum said. "I have the least faith in technical solutions because you plug a leak and another one springs."
He sees a variety of potential remedies to the spam problem, including charging for marketing e-mail, taking legal action or the extreme case of users keeping their e-mail addresses private, out of chat rooms and off bulletin boards, where they might be picked up by potential spammers. Mr. Arnum recently received a piece of spam mail hawking 800,000 "fresh AOL e-mail addresses" for $75.
ISPs are also stepping up their efforts to boot spammers. For instance, TCG Cerfnet, a San Diego, Calif., ISP, recently amended its acceptable use policy to ban spam. Before, a user had to cause a technical disturbance to the network to be kicked off, something that didn't cover spam.
Still, unsolicited e-mail doesn't seem to be waning. In an AOL mailbox set up to catch spam, Mr. Arnum said he gets about eight junk e-mails a day. Not only is forged spam mail damaging free e-mail providers like Juno because people will begin to block its mail, Mr. Arnum said, but it also threatens the use of e-mail as a valid marketing medium. "When it gets to 100 [e-mails a day], will I even look in my mailbox?" he asked.
Copyright November 1997, Crain Communications Inc.