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Spammers face suits by Spitzer and Microsoft

By Kim Peterson
Seattle Times technology reporter

STEPHEN CHERNIN / GETTY IMAGES
Brad Smith, center, general counsel of Microsoft and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, right, file suits against spammers.
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Microsoft and New York's attorney general sued some of the most notorious alleged spammers in the country yesterday, claiming the group has flooded people's inboxes with billions of fraudulent and misleading advertisements.

The six-month investigation started at Microsoft, which earlier this year collected nearly 8,800 messages sent over one month to Hotmail accounts specifically created to catch junk e-mail. Microsoft researched the source of these messages and brought the evidence to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office, where the investigation continued.

The result was yesterday's filing of parallel lawsuits in New York and Washington state. Microsoft filed six lawsuits in Washington, including one against the same defendants named in the sole lawsuit filed by Spitzer's office.

Those defendants include Scott Richter, allegedly one of the most prolific spammers in the world and president of a Colorado company named OptInRealBig.com. He was listed as the third-most active spammer for the month of November by Spamhaus, an anti-spam organization that tracks trends.

According to the complaint filed by Spitzer, Richter's company was hired by another company called Synergy6 to send e-mails urging people to register at two Web sites owned by Synergy6. Richter then hired people to do some of the work.

The group sent millions of e-mails in May and June, including thousands to Microsoft's Hotmail addresses set up to catch spam, the complaint said. Those e-mails listed false identities as the senders, and often were disguised to look like they had been sent from the recipient.

Microsoft has never sent any e-mail from its accounts, said Brad Smith, the company's general counsel, and the addresses are not public. No one has ever requested that information be sent to those accounts, he said. Spammers often claim that their work is legitimate because recipients had asked to receive the e-mails.

Richter said yesterday that he is not a spammer and that Microsoft is suing him to pump up its own name. He said he plans to countersue the company.

"We don't do anything wrong," he said. "This is nothing but a cheap PR stunt put on by Microsoft."

Smith said Richter has denied being a spammer for a long time, but Spitzer's office has subpoenaed internal documents and e-mail messages that show Richter's involvement.

Microsoft is seeking about $18.8 million in damages from Richter and his co-defendants, and $12 million collectively in the other five lawsuits it has filed. Spitzer's office is likely to seek about $20 million in damages in the Richter case.

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Smith said Microsoft's collaboration with Spitzer's office is a good model that it will likely continue with other states. The relationship described yesterday is quite a bit different from in years past, when the two sides were at opposite ends of the courtroom when Spitzer represented New York in the U.S. government's antitrust case against Microsoft.

Smith said he and Spitzer became good friends in college decades ago at Princeton University. They were undergraduate classmates and have stayed friends. Smith said Spitzer called him in June of this year, the day after Microsoft announced a spam crackdown with state Attorney General Christine Gregoire. Spitzer wanted to do something similar, and suggested that Smith contact him about it the next time he was in New York.

By coincidence, Smith happened to be waiting to catch a flight to New York. The two met the next day and the spam investigation started, Smith said. " The timing was perfect."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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