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Published: Monday, 8/22/2005

Jail the spammers

It seems like a light penalty for someone responsible for 7 billion unsolicited e-mail messages, but a former software engineer for America Online has been slapped with a 15-month prison sentence for stealing information used to create a torrent of computer "spam."

Jason Smathers, 25, pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining the Internet addresses of AOL's 30 million customers and delivering them for $28,000 to a Las Vegas man who sent out messages pitching an offshore gambling site.

Authorities say AOL customers - with 92 million screen names in all - received some 7 billion unsolicited messages. Worse, the stolen list continues to circulate in cyberspace.

The federal judge in the case said that Smathers deserved a relatively light sentence because he cooperated fully with government prosecutors in nailing the spammer. Even so, jail time for such Internet crooks is fully justified given the economic and technical havoc wrought by spam.

Despite software that allows computer users to filter spam from their e-mail, these annoying - and usually illegal - messages still represent a growth industry. Information Week magazine reported that spammers sent out nearly 106 billion messages in one recent 24-hour period.

Typical spam solicitations include purported sexual aids, pornographic web sites, and cheap computer software.

More seriously, such messages are used to spread destructive computer viruses, spyware, and so-called "phishing" schemes that steal personal information for criminal purposes.

Beyond the irritation and inconvenience, spam clogs the information superhighway, slowing personal computers and company networks and wasting productive hours.

Computers have become so integral to virtually all businesses and industries that down time is more expensive than ever. AOL estimates that it lost at least $400,000 and possibly more in dealing with the Smathers case.

Microsoft Corp. recently obtained a $7 million court settlement against one major spammer, but a generous application of jail time might be a better solution to take a byte out of this growing problem.

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