Two of the country's largest Internet service providers yesterday sued more than a dozen alleged spammers and related marketing firms in cases they claim expose an international world of bulk e-mailers using sophisticated technology, gloating about defeating anti-spam systems and boasting of getting rich.
America Online Inc., the largest subscription e-mail account service in the country, accused a married Florida couple and another man of conspiring with two Americans living in Thailand to route mortgage-scam solicitations to AOL customers. The group also is accused of developing a software program known as Merlin to defeat AOL's spam filters through a company known as Connor-Miller Software Inc.
In an unrelated suit in Georgia, Atlanta-based EarthLink Corp., the nation's third-largest subscription e-mail provider, named 16 individuals and companies in Florida, California, Tennessee and Michigan, accusing them of operating a multi-state spam ring.
The group is accused of sending out more than 250 million e-mail messages peddling herbal supplements, Viagra and adult dating services. The spammers also are accused of using stolen bank cards and other falsified identity documents to open EarthLink Internet accounts that were used to transmit the spam.
Both cases originally were filed last year. In the case of America Online, a federal court in Virginia ruled that the company had not shown that the Florida defendants caused sufficient damages in Virginia, where AOL is located. The company refiled the case in federal court in Orlando. EarthLink amended its original suit to name the defendants, which include people identified by spam-tracking groups as among the most prolific spammers in the world.
The AOL case in particular pulls back the curtain on the cutthroat and sometimes desperate world of spamming. As supporting evidence for its case, the company provided dozens of pages of transcripts of conversations in 2002 via computer chat between the alleged spammers, which were saved by one of the defendants and turned over in response to a court order.
The secure instant-message chats show the defendants swinging between hubris and fear of discovery. Often, they stab each other in the back when talking to others.
"I got them beat now," said one correspondent identified as Jonathan Beyer, discussing how he developed a system to stay a step ahead of the Internet service providers trying to stop them from sending out mail. "And if they change something I know how to figure it out. I got Earthlink, MSN [Microsoft Corp.'s Internet service] and ATT (Brightmail) beat too. . . . It feels good. I figured it out all by myself."
But in another chat a man identified as Jim Connor writes, "This whole deal is gonna end up with someone in jail and everyone else's career ruined."
Connor is named in the suit as James Connor of Longwood, Fla. Beyer is alleged by AOL in a separate suit to have operated out of Thailand routing e-mail messages to a set of computers in Florida run by Connor, Charles Miller and Heidi Miller of Winter Garden, Fla.
Beyer and co-defendant Joseph Conrad are still in Thailand, said an AOL spokesman. Neither man could be located for comment.
Heidi Miller said in a telephone interview that neither she nor her husband ever sent spam. Arlington attorney Seth Berenzweig, who represents the Florida defendants, said they are computer technicians, not spammers.
"They set up a network, just like AOL is a network," he said.
The EarthLink case names some of the Internet's most notorious spammers. Among them is Damon Decrescenzo of Florida, known to the anti-spam organization Spamhaus.org as part of a group that sells medicines online. Decrescenzo could not be located for comment.