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$236m judgment lands on mom and pop spam shop

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An Arizona couple accused of bombarding a small internet service provider with millions of spam messages has been ordered to pay more than $236m in a federal case that documents the heroic measures one man took against the torrent of unsolicited junk mail.

Henry Perez and Suzanne Bartok were ordered to pay the sum late last month by US District Judge John A. Jarvey of Iowa. The couple, who ran a business called AMP Dollar Savings, were sued by Robert Kramer, owner of CIS Internet Services. He sued after his small Iowa-based ISP was forced to dedicate three servers exclusively to processing spam.

According to the an order dated September 30, AMP used a spam program called "Bulk Mailing 4 Dummies" to send junk mail advertising to refinance home mortgages. The software included 2.8 million email addresses containing CIS's cis.net domain name even though the ISP had only about 5,000 subscribers. By 2003, CIS was receiving 500 million spams every day, forcing Kramer to spend 60 hours per week tending to the spam problem.

Rather than take it on the chin, Kramer decided to strike back. He hired an Atlanta-based lawyer from Wellborn and Wallace, who monitored several dozen CIS email addresses. When he received a message that instructed him to "click here for our special low rates," the lawyer took the bait. The lawyer received a mortgage solicitation from a broker in California. After the lawyer subpoenaed the broker, he learned the broker had been commissioned by AMP.

The couple denied sending any of the spam, but during discovery was able to produce few of the requested documents and other items that might have proved their claims.

"The court simply does not believe Mr. Perez or Ms. Bartok," Jarvey wrote. "They claim that they conveniently but inadvertently destroyed all the records of their company, just prior to be served with a civil action, rings hollow."

Perez and Bartok declined to comment through their lawyer, Davis Foster of Iowa. Foster declined to comment because he said he anticipated filing "post-trial motions to see if we can change the result." Kramer didn't return phone calls by time of publication.

The monster judgment - among the biggest ever in a spam case - is a significant victory in the ongoing battle against spam. For one thing, it represents a little more than $13 for each of the 18 million spams the couple were found to have pumped into CIS servers during a four-month period in 2003. What's more, the ruling holds the individuals personally responsible for paying the judgment, rather than applying only to the business they incorporated.

Of course, there's always a good chance that spammers will refuse to pay judgments. Indeed, Kramer told IDG News here that he's won 10 judgments, but so far, it has proved difficult to collect on them.

Even so, spam volumes at CIS have dropped to between 10 million and 15 million, at least in part, Kramer said, because of the legal campaign. That, combined with the cautionary tale the case provides to other would-be spammers, makes it all worthwhile. ®

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