April 2, 2002
The Federal Trade Commission has joined eight state law enforcers in the United States and four Canadian agencies in an initiative targeting deceptive spam and Internet fraud. The agencies have brought 63 law enforcement actions against Web-based scams ranging from auction fraud to bogus cancer cure sites, and have sent more than 500 letters warning people sending deceptive spam that it is illegal. In addition, Netforce partners tested whether "remove me" or "unsubscribe" options in spam were being honored.
"Illegal Internet schemes and deceptive spam don't stop at state lines or international borders," said J. Howard Beales III, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The FTC and its law enforcement partners are sending a signal to scammers: We're out there surfing the Net, reading our spam and working together to stop Internet scams."
"Cyberspace is a wondrous place, but we are quickly learning that it can also be a dangerous place for the unwary. Con artists who once relied on telephone boiler rooms and mass mailings can now rip people off through websites and e-mail," said Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire. "While the scams are often very familiar, use of the Internet creates some major new challenges for consumer protection organizations. That's why it's so important that those of us who enforce state, provincial and national consumer protection laws work together to meet these new challenges."
The FTC targeted four operations using the Net to scam consumers:
An FTC complaint named Universal Direct and its principals, Linda Jean Lightfoot and Charles F. Childs. Their spam promotes "a MLM (multi-level marketing) Gifting Program that CAN'T FAIL" and promises participants $10,000 in cash gifts within a few months of joining. The FTC alleges the scheme is an illegal chain-letter in which most participants will fail to make any money. The FTC has asked the court to halt the illegal scheme and freeze the defendants' assets pending trial. The agency will seek a court order requiring the defendants to give up their ill-gotten gains.
The FTC alleges David L. Walker is using an Internet site to market products he claims cure cancer, including his "CWAT -Treatment: BioResonance Therapy and Molecular Enhancer." The site claims his treatments, for which he charges between $2,400 and $5,200, make surgery, chemotherapy, and other conventional cancer treatments
unnecessary. The FTC alleges the claims are unsubstantiated and a declaration from a distinguished oncologist suggests the therapies are potentially harmful to cancer patients. The agency has asked the court to bar the unsubstantiated claims permanently, and order consumer redress.
In a third case, Sound City 2000, Inc. and Linda M. Simmons have agreed to settle charges that they violated the FTC's Mail Order Rule. The Sound City Web site advertised and sold compact discs. The FTC alleged that Sound City delivered discs late or not at all and failed to make prompt refunds. The settlement bars the defendants from violating the Rule and requires them to pay consumer redress.
|A fourth case alleging use of deceptive spam is under seal by order of a U.S. District Court. The seal will be lifted shortly and details of the case will be released at that time. |
In addition to the law enforcement actions, the FTC, six state agencies, and Canada's Competition Bureau sent warning letters to more than 500 spammers based in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and Canada who allegedly are running illegal chain letter schemes. The spammers promised quick money to recipients who send $5.00 in cash to each of four or five participants at the top of the list. In return for the $5.00 payment, recruits received "reports" providing instructions about how to start their own chain letter schemes and recruit tens of thousands of others via spam. The chain letter deceptively claimed the program is legal and urged recruits who question its legitimacy to contact the FTC. The FTC maintains a database of unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE). Consumers currently send unwanted spam to the agency at a rate of approximately 15,000 e-mails a day using the agency's database address, firstname.lastname@example.org. The FTC has collected more than 10 million unwanted spam messages since 1998.
In another initiative, Netforce partners tested whether "remove me" or "unsubscribe" options in spam were being honored. From e-mail forwarded to the FTC's database, the agencies culled more than 200 e-mails that purported to allow recipients to remove their name from a spam list. The agencies set up dummy e-mail accounts to test the pledges, but discovered that the vast majority of addresses to which they sent the requests were invalid. Most of the "remove me" requests did not get through. Based on information gathered by the Netforce, the FTC has sent more than 75 letters warning spammers that deceptive "removal" claims in unsolicited e-mail are illegal.