FTC: Help Us Find and Prosecute Spammers

Federal legislation to fight spam should address the problems of finding perpetrators, deterring others, and determining what to do about non-deceptive unsolicited e-mail, the Federal Trade Commission’s Howard Beales testified before a House committee this week.

The testimony comes as House Speaker Dennis Hastert considers calling for a full House vote on the Can Spam Act passed earlier in the Senate, with lawmakers vowing to get anti-spam legislation to the President’s desk before the end of the year.

For the FTC, the major issue is finding spammers, said Beales, who is director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“Finding the wrongdoers is an important aspect of all law enforcement actions, but in spam cases it is a particularly daunting task,” said Beales, speaking before the House Committee on Small Business’ Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform and Oversight. “Spammers can easily hide their identity, falsify the electronic path of their e-mail messages, or send their messages from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world.”

Beales said he thought technology would eventually help the agency find spammers, but determining the scope of their potential violations of the law would still be difficult under current laws.

In a move sure to raise the hackles of privacy advocates, the FTC suggested some changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA)that it said would help it better prosecute spam cases. The agency is seeking more access to data from ISPs, including spam complaints and information about hijacked e-mail accounts. The commission also wants a modification of EPCA that would allow it to subpoena ISPs for information during the discovery phase of a case.

On the problem of deterrence, Beales said he thought civil penalties, and possibly criminal sanctions, were called for. Specifically, the FTC has explored making the act of using false header and routing information a criminal offense.

The FTC believes legislation should set standards for non-deceptive unsolicited e-mail, which would include the clear identification of the sender of a message, and the ability for consumers to opt-out of messages they don’t want. The Can Spam act would go far to handle these issues, requiring senders to use valid header and subject lines, and making sure people can opt out of mailing lists.

Beales also said the agency should be given more authority to fight fraud and deception. The commission wants more leeway to work with international law enforcement partners on spam issues, and also wants more freedom to investigate spammers without their being notified.

“The FTC’s experience is that fraud targets often destroy documents or hide assets when they receive notice of FTC investigations,” he said.

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