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30 Nov 2009
Earlier this year, the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, the US Federal Trade Commission, and the Australian CMA broke up a large fake drug spam ring known as Herbal Kings, run by New Zealander Lance Atkinson. The NZ government fined him NZ$108,000 (about US$80,000) which, while a substantial fine, seemed pretty small compared to the amount of money he must have made. But today, at the FTC's request a US judge fined Atkinson US$15.5 million, and got his US accomplice Jody Smith to turn over $800,000, including over $500,000 in an Israeli bank. This is the largest spam fine I'm aware of, and the $500,000 is one of the largest international recoveries. Atkinson hasn't paid the $15M, but since he is in jail, it seems reasonably likely that the various governments will be able to track down his assets by the time he gets out.
Spammers are in it for the money, and to the extent they can keep what they get, they'll keep spamming. Fines that wipe out the profits, and in particular fines that can actually be collected are essential if we're going to make any progress against spam.
Fortunately for the FTC, Herbal King's spam was sloppy, with faked headers and broken opt-out links, which are among the few things that the weak CAN SPAM law forbids. If the spammers had been more careful, the fake drugs would still be illegal, but it would have been harder to prosecute them in the US since CAN SPAM wouldn't have applied.
You can read the NZ release on the CAUCE web site and the FTC release on the FTC's web site. I assisted the NZ government as a technical expert, providing advice to the court explaining how Atkinson's actions matched what the law forbids.
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