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Swedish programmer in Greek spam probe protests innocence

Beware of Geeks bearing computers

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A well-known Swedish programmer is fighting to clear his name after he was arrested in Greece last week on charges of spamming people with penis pill adverts and the like.

Rick Downes runs software companies Rixstep.com and Radsoft.net and is strongly against spamming. Downes runs these firms part time from his home in Crete after taking early retirement.

But these credentials cut little ice with Greek tourist police who arrested Downes on 26 October and confiscated his main computer. Local police were acting on complaints made by a travel agent business acquaintance and two other people who received nearly identical spam messages (advertising drugs such as Viagra and Valium) soon after meeting the software developer and his wife, Sydney Phillips.

Police told local paper Xaniotika Nea (Chania News) that Downes, along with another unnamed Swedish citizen, were illegally selling pharmaceutical drugs on the net, promoted through an enthusiastic spamming campaign. But, according to Phillips, there is no connection between him and suspect emails shown to him by the police. These sample emails contained no header information but ostensibly came from the domain 'acnielsen.com', the online ratings firm.

Downes strongly denies the accusations and maintains there is nothing to link him with the spam messages. He said his knowledge of computers was taken as suspicious by investigators who knew nothing about technology.

"We tried to explain to the police that what most likely happened is that the travel agent's computer is compromised and that her address book (including the addresses of her two friends who've met Rick) has been harvested for use by spammers, but they did not understand this. They were very unsophisticated in terms of computers and seemed to believe spammers met people and collected email addresses one by one," Phillips said.

Downes operates an Apple Mac machine and is an expert in low level functions so there was no way his machine was compromised to send the offending messages, according to Phillips, who remains baffled about why her husband came to be charged and is highly critical of the police handling of the case.

"We've received no help from the Swedish consulate. All they can do is recommend a translator," she said, adding that the case has affected the couple's health and affected the operation of Downes's software development businesses.

Police are still investigating the case but Phillips is hopeful this probe will be completed within a week. At that point, police will either drop the case or give Downes a court date. ®

Clarification

An earlier version of this article said Downes had been nominated to the caretaker board of EINSA, the new European taskforce for Internet security. While Downes was recommended to the board, he never formally applied, and therefore has no formal links with the organization. We are happy to clarify this point.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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