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Big Spam Bust, Texas Style

Texas became the latest state or federal entity to take a swipe at spammers Thursday when it sued a University of Texas student and a California resident over what spam watchdog SpamHaus calls the world's fourth largest illegal e-mail operation.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called Ryan Samuel Pitylak of Austin and Mark Stephen Trotter of Encinitas, Calif., two of the nation's "most prolific spammers" in an Austin press conference detailing the multi-million dollar civil action.

Abbott said Pitylak and Trotter engaged in "reaching out and harassing hundreds of thousands of people across the United States" in a fraudulent e-mail scheme involving misleading subject lines.

The lawsuit contends the two were pitching mortgage refinancing services, although neither Pitylak nor Trotter are licensed in Texas to provide such services. According to Abbott, consumers, after being assured in the e-mail their privacy would be protected, provided personal information which Pitylak and Trotter then sold to other companies for as much as $28 per lead.

"We want to make clear that these defendants we are suing today and any other spammers in the State of Texas can't hide behind a computer screen any longer," Abbott said at the press conference. "Sending spam with misleading subject lines violate both federal and state law and there is a very heavy price to pay for that illegal spamming."

Abbott said he was suing Pitylak and Trotter under the federal Can Spam Act, the Texas Electronic Mail and Solicitation Act and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Violations of the Can Spam Act carry penalties of $250 per violation, up to $2 million. The Texas spam violations allow for fines of up to $10 per unlawful e-mail or $25,000 per day.

Under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, penalties are authorized for up to $20,000 per violation.

Although Abbott did not disclose the specific amount of spam involved in the scheme, he noted that "spam traps" set up by Microsoft in cooperation with the Texas attorney general identified 24,000 illegal e-mails sent by Pitylak and Trotter over a six-month period. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also cooperated in the investigation.

Pitylak and Trotter ran their spam operation through a complex set of corporations and assumed business names. The lawsuit identifies corporations set up in both Texas and Nevada and more than 250 different business names.

The Texas action comes just a day after the FTC moved against a pornography-related spam ring that stretches from Las Vegas to Latvia. According to the FTC, the network spammed "hundreds of thousands" of consumers with sexually explicit or sexually suggestive e-mails, all without the consumers' consent. The FTC also claims the defendants failed to identify clearly all of their messages as advertisements, instead misrepresenting that their services are free.

Last summer, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced more than a hundred individuals were arrested and charged in a federal computer and Internet-related crime sweep known as Operation Web Snare. In all, Ashcroft said, approximately 350 individuals were targeted for major forms of online economic crime and other cybercrimes, resulting in 103 arrests and 53 convictions.