Michigan Wants Remove.org Removed

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox on Monday issued a Notice of Intended
Action to remove.org, a Web site that promises to protect consumers from spam and pornographic e-mails for $9.95 a year.

As previously reported, the site also promises to add your name to its “National Opt Out Directory” and actively pursue marketers who send unwanted e-mails to its members.

Cox’s statement said remove.org’s claims of being “a complete service offering protection from spam e-mail, junk mail, and telemarketers” were fraudulent. The notice said that there was no way that the service could make good on the many promises of protection from annoying or offensive marketing.

“This organization’s Web site is decorated with the American flag and the Statue of Liberty, yet there are few more un-American practices than lying to the public about being a charity recognized by the IRS,” the statement said. “Remove.org’s blatant deception is a slap in the face of the many legitimate charities that take pains to comply with state and federal charity laws.”

The attorney general is tough on cyber-crime. Earlier this month, he took over the prosecution of Ning Ma, a University of Michigan student accused of hacking into the University’s computer system and using e-mail accounts to forge e-mail, acquire copies of final exams and answer sheets, and obtain a credit card number and bank account and PIN number of another student. In July, it prosecuted a man who used the Internet to solicit sex with minors; he got six to twenty years in jail. In June, Cox’s office issued a consumer alert about the Best Buy fraud scam.

Internet crime is a natural area of investigation for attorneys general, spokesman Sage Eastman told internetnews.com, because they can work across county, state and even international borders, cooperating with local law enforcement.

In the case of remove.org, Eastman said, “This type of activity is coming to Michigan consumers, and the question is, ‘Should we sit around and wait for people to lose their ten dollars, or should we act quickly?’ Given the particularly outrageous claims being made, the attorney general felt it necessary to move quickly and be proactive.”

The site’s operator, Jonathan Angell, responded to the Notice of Intent within hours, according to Eastman.

“When a company receives a letter from a state attorney general, it sparks attention,” he said.

The attorney general’s office will give Angell a reasonable amount of time to make his case. Then, it will attempt to resolve the matter without going to court. Angell will have to either prove that he can, in fact, “protect individuals, families and children from unwanted solicitations and pornography,” or agree to remove that and other language the AG’s office finds fraudulent.

“They may be able to market the fact that they’re trying to stop spam,” Eastman said. “If they realistically marketed their product, we might be okay with it. Our bottom line is, we want remove.org, when it contacts an individual, to be honest and upfront about what they can really do to help the consumer.”

The attorney general’s High-Tech Crime Unit logs consumer complaints via the phone or its Web site. Of the approximately 140,000 complaints it received last year, identity theft topped the list; in 2001, it was the fourth biggest complaint. The Unit and Cox himself keep an eye on spam, via dummy e-mail addresses — and their own. Eastman said that Cox received a copy of the Best Buy Fraud e-mail in his personal account, triggering the office’s consumer alert.

They also read the news. Eastman said the attorney general went after remove.org after reading articles about the site. MSNBC.com ran a skeptical story on remove.org on July 30. InternetNews.com followed on August 1. Since then, the story has been picked up by Reuters and CNN.

“You guys should take some credit for this action,” Eastman said. ” If it weren’t for two media reports, it would probably never have come to our attention. We don’t have the resources to spend all day everyday scouring the depths of the Internet to find shady activity. We need the help of both journalists and everyday consumers.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of the story erroneously priced Remove.org’s services at $10 per month.

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