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Yahoo! may! never! see! a! penny! of! $610m! anti-spam! win!

Court rules against lotto scammers, whoever they are

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Yahoo! has been awarded a $610 million default judgment against spammers who abusing its brand to run a lottery scam.

Marks received email supposedly from Yahoo! telling them they had won a lottery. Funds weren't just handed over at once, of course, instead those hooked via the scam would have been tricked into handing over personal information such credit card and social security numbers that would have been used to carry out identify theft or to establish lines of credit under assumed names.

Some of the "winners" are also deceived into sending the defendants money for processing and mailing charges, a classic tactic in such 419-lite (advanced fee fraud) scams.

The order in Yahoo!'s favour was handed down by a federal district court judge in New York on 5 December, bringing to a close a lawsuit that began in 2008.

The $610 million judgment was made up of $27 million for trademark infringement and and $583 million for violation of the CAN-SPAM Act, the US federal anti-spam law. Yahoo! has been awarded $50 for each of the 11.6 million hoax lottery emails sent as part of the scam, which ran between December 2006 and May 2009. The internet firm was also awarded lawyers’ fees.

It seems highly unlikely that Yahoo! will see any of its money, so the award is purely symbolic. The alleged perpetrators of the scam are Nigerian, Thai and Taiwanese, a huge practical obstacle to any seizure or possible criminal proceedings, even assuming the miscreants were sitting on piles of money.

"The judgment is in the US, and the guilty parties are not. Applying the judgment extra-territorially is a significant hurdle for retribution on a practical level," explains Lachlan Urquhart, a law graduate writing on Sophos's Naked Security blog. "Despite this, laws remain incredibly important online because they represent democratic process and establish certainty and norms. Unfortunately, this judgment highlights their huge shortcoming: enforcement."

Christian Dowell, legal director of global brand protection at Yahoo!, argued that fighting spammers was necessary in order to to protect the web biz's brand.

“Yahoo! takes the protection if its users and its brand very seriously,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure that users continue to trust Yahoo! as the leading US email provider.”

Yahoo!'s strategy for fight against phishing scams and spam more generally can be found here. ®

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