“Spam” has quickly become a household word, generally meaning unsolicited mass commercial electronic mail messages where the sender and recipient have no pre-existing business relationship. Spam can be sent via fax machines, cell phones, instant messaging and other electronic means. However, the majority of such messages are sent by e-mail and are pushing products, pornography or financial offerings. Many are hoaxes or just an intentional annoyance.
It has been estimated that as much as 90 percent of all e-mail traffic is spam and that a spammer, for a very small investment, can send as many as 650,000 pieces of junk mail in an hour, sometimes by way of an offshore server. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Internet service providers receive hundreds of thousands of complaints about spam each year, and the annual cost to U.S. businesses is nearly $2,000 per employee.
In an effort to contain this massive problem at the federal level, Congress enacted the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Actions enforcing this law must be filed in federal court.
The Georgia Slam Spam E-Mail Act (O.C.G.A. Sections 16-9-92 and 16-9-100 through 109) was passed in 2005 to help hold accountable those who abuse the Internet in certain ways. This law provides severe penalties for practices such as forging headers, using misleading subject headings, or stating falsely that the recipient had requested the information contained in the e-mail. Internet service providers (ISPs) and domain owners may bring civil charges against spammers for fraudulent and deceptive e-mail. Legitimate e-mail advertising is not affected.
Under the Slam Spam Act, those who send spam to Georgians from anywhere in the United States may be punished for committing a felony if they:
- Send a high volume of spam, as in more than 10,000 messages in a 24-hour period;
- Generate more than $1,000 in revenue from a single spam message or more than $50,000 from all spam transmitted to a single ISP; or
- Knowingly use a minor to assist in transmitting spam.
The criminal penalty for a felony of this nature is a fine of up to $50,000, imprisonment for up to five years, or both. E-mails that are deceptive but do not meet the above criteria are punishable as a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to $1,000, imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both. Enforcement of this law is the shared responsibility of Georgia’s Attorney General and local district attorneys and law enforcement units.
In addition, state and local prosecutors have the authority to enforce Georgia’s Computer Systems Protection Act (O.C.G.A. Section 16-9-90), which allows them to prosecute those who commit crimes using a computer or computer network to obtain property by fraudulent means. Victims of this kind of crime may also sue for damages.
Given the difficulties of going after spammers, however, we as individuals must continue doing whatever we can to protect ourselves. Above all, don’t respond to or buy anything through unsolicited junk e-mails. You also want to make it difficult for spammers to get and use your e-mail address. The Federal Citizen Information Center offers these tips for reducing the amount of spam that reaches your inbox:
- Don’t use an obvious address like “[email protected]” Instead use one with numbers or other digits, such as “[email protected].”
- Use one e-mail address for close friends and family and another for everyone else. Free addresses are available from Yahoo! and Hotmail. You can also get a disposable forwarding address from www.spammotel.com. If an address attracts too much SPAM, get rid of it and establish a new one.
- Don’t post your e-mail address on a public web page. Spammers use software that harvests text addresses. Substitute “janedoe at isp.com” for “[email protected].” Or display your address as a graphic image, not text.
- Uncheck any checkboxes that grant the site or its partners permission to contact you.
- Don’t click on an e-mail’s “unsubscribe” link unless you trust the sender. [Spammers often broadcast to a huge list of addresses that may be manufactured and not valid.] This action on your part tells the sender you’re there.
- Never forward chain letters, petitions or virus warnings. All could be a spammer’s trick to collect addresses.
- Disable your e-mail “preview pane.” This stops spam from reporting to its sender that you’ve received it.
- Choose an Internet Service Provider that filters e-mail. If you get lots of spam, your ISP may not be blocking effectively.
- Use spam-blocking software. Web browser software often includes free filtering options. You can also purchase special software that will accomplish this task.
- Report spam. Forward unwanted or deceptive messages to:
- your email provider. At the top of the message, state that you're complaining about being spammed. Some email services include buttons you can click to mark messages as junk mail or report spam.
- the sender's email provider, if you can tell who it is. Most web mail providers and ISPs want to cut off spammers who abuse their systems. Again, make sure to include the entire spam email and say that you're complaining about spam.
The FTC is working to keep your inbox clear of spam. In the past, the FTC asked you to help by forwarding the spam you received. Now, the FTC collects spam by using a honeypot, which is an online trap. This change makes it more efficient for the FTC to collect spam that is deceptive or illegal, saving tax dollars and your time.
If you lost money to a scam that started with an email, please report it at ftc.gov/complaint.
More Spam Tips
A wealth of useful information on avoiding spam is available online from diverse sources such as the FTC, your ISP and spam-fighting consumer organizations. Try some of these links for starters, and you can help contain the problem of spam: