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Originally published Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"King of Spam" dethroned with 47-month sentence in Seattle court

Robert Soloway abdicated his throne as king of Internet spammers Tuesday when he apologized in court for being a "nuisance" to tens of millions of computer users before being sentenced to 47 months in prison and ordered to forfeit more than $708,000.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Robert Soloway abdicated his throne as king of Internet spammers Tuesday when he apologized in court for being a "nuisance" to tens of millions of computer users before being sentenced to 47 months in prison and ordered to forfeit more than $708,000.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman told the 28-year-old Soloway that he was being made an example of — but not to the extent federal prosecutors had sought. His sentence was less than half of the nine-year sentence the government had argued for during a nearly three-day sentencing hearing.

Soloway, in a gray suit and pink tie, gave a five-page letter to the judge and then spoke animatedly about his crimes. He admitted that he "tried to loophole" the CAN-SPAM Act, passed by Congress in 2005 to criminalize unsolicited bulk commercial e-mails. Soloway, 28, pleaded guilty to that statute, as well as mail fraud and failing to file a tax return.

He also admitted he had an extravagant lifestyle that included more than 20 credit cards, dozens of pairs of designer sunglasses, expensive clothing and a penthouse apartment overlooking Elliott Bay.

The government, which dubbed him "the king of spam," has shown that Soloway made more than $700,000 in sales of his spamming software between 2005 and 2007. Soloway said he is deeply in debt and owes more than $17 million in civil judgments.

"I built my entire life around a facade," he said. "I'm very embarrassed and I'm ashamed."

Prosecutors have gone to extraordinary lengths to show that Soloway deserves a hefty prison sentence and went about making their case in an unusually long sentencing hearing that involved witnesses ranging from a businessman from England to a vice president of AOL.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Warma, however, acknowledged that quantifying the number of victims and the amount of loss — both needed to justify an enhanced sentence — has proved "challenging."

Only a handful of other spammers have been charged under CAN-SPAM, or the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, and none of them "even come close to what we've seen in this case," Warma told the judge.

"He has achieved one of the highest levels of criminal spammer-hood," Warma told the judge.

Worldwide, his victims number in the hundreds of millions — maybe billions — and include anyone who's ever had to delete one of his nuisance e-mails, she said. All of those wasted seconds amount to a loss of productivity that should be considered a monetary loss in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Warma argued.

Richard Troberman, Soloway's attorney, wrote in sentencing documents that "annoyance does not fall within the definition" of pecuniary harm. He accused the government of "overreaching."

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"Robert was without question a major nuisance to users of the Internet, and his constant barrage of 'spam' irritated thousands of people, and even cause some people financial losses.

"But the sentenced recommended by the government is wholly disproportionate to the crime," Troberman wrote.

Pechman found that counting victims "one by one" was impossible, and that likewise "I would never be able to calculate what the loss is."

Even so, she found that Soloway used mass marketing in the fraud and she decided that the loss was probably best measured by how much money Soloway made — more than $700,000 over three years. She ordered him to forfeit that amount.

The judge also noted that not all of Soloway's victims were equal. Millions of innocents were annoyed by his spam, she said. She was less sympathetic to the victims who complained that Soloway didn't make good on their purchases of his $495 software kit designed to help them become spammers, too.

"So, are they victims or perpetrators?" Pechman asked.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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