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UK's biggest spammer goes AWOL

Peter Francis-Macrae wanted by the police and Nominet

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Britain's most prolific spammer, 23-year-old Peter Francis-Macrae, is on the run from both the police and UK domain registry Nominet after he finally pushed his luck too far.

Francis-Macrae, who lives in the small town of St Neots in Cambridgeshire with his father, failed to turn up to a hearing at Huntington Magistrates court and a warrant for his arrest has been issued. He is charged with five criminal counts from threats to kill, sending offensive messages and threatening to burn a trading standards office that was investigating him for a variety of Internet scams.

Meanwhile, the organisation in charge of all .uk domains, Nominet, has won an injunction against Mr Francis-Macrae and his company Ultra Technologies that prevents him from: causing any damage to Nominet's computer systems; harassing Nominet staff; using the .uk Whois database; and sending any apparent domain re-registration documents. Any breach of these conditions would see him in contempt of court with a possible jail sentence.

Nominet decided to take Mr Francis-Macrae to court after he sent domain re-registration forms to Nominet customers, telling them they needed to renew their domain immediately. Nominet claims he passed himself off as connected to it - when in fact he is not even a Nominet member or entitled to act directly as a domain seller - and that he abused Nominet's copyright on the Whois domain registry.

The abuse question is of legal significance as it could set an important precedent in UK law regarding domain name data. Nominet claims Francis-Macrae used the Whois to get details of its customers which he then used to mislead people for financial gain. Under the terms of the injunction, Francis-Macrae is obliged to provide Nominet with all the addresses that he used and compensate it for all costs related to settling the matter. A lawyer for Nominet told us however that he wasn't at all confident any such list would be forthcoming.

It isn't the first time Francis-Macrae has been in trouble over Internet scams. He has been running variations on the same registration trick for years (most notably selling unavailable .eu domains), and has been very active as a spammer, sending unsolicited emails to millions of addresses. Going by the name "weaselboy" on the Net, he has drawn the ire of many Internet users and, it is claimed, retaliated against critics by flooding their inboxes with spam.

However, he may have bitten off more than he could chew when he targeted Cambridgeshire's chief constable Tom Lloyd this time last year. Francis-Macrae sent a spam email to tens of thousands of people informing them that £400 would be taken from their bank accounts and they should call the company's service manager if they had a problem. He then gave Tom Lloyd's name and the police switchboard number. Thousands of irate callers flooded the switchboard, and Francis-Macrae was arrested shortly afterwards.

Nominet has personally served Mr Francis-Macrae with the court papers and he has until 10 December to put his defence to London's High Court, although Nominet remains unaware of any legal representation for Francis-Macrae, his previous behaviour would suggest that a defence is unlikely to be waged.

Nominet takes its protection of the .uk Whois very seriously, we were told, and is prepared to go to court to prevent any abuse. It recently demonstrated its determination when it took an Australian company to court in Australia for a very similar offence. Despite criticism of the move, it won the case and claims that it helped set a legal precedent for what was previously only an assumed right of ownership.

A safer Whois system is being put in place at the moment, Nominet informed us, which will restrict and swiftly expose abusive behaviour. And Francis-Macrae's case will provide more experience and possibly a legal precedent to help Nominet tackle scams and Whois abuse in the future.

Unfortunately, thanks to the Labour government's decision to allow an opt-out system for emails, Mr Francis-Macrae's spam antics are not illegal, as they would be in the United States or elsewhere in the world. However, it would seem that both the police and Nominet have discovered other elements of the law that may be used in preventing widespread abuse of email technology. ®

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