AG Files California’s First Spam Lawsuit

As California cracks down on a 1998 consumer protection law against e-mail spam, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the owners and operators of an e-mail marketing company.

Seeking a maximum of $2 million in civil penalties for violating state law that protects residents from unsolicited e-mail, Lockyer filed suit in Santa Clara County Superior Court against Paul Willis of Northridge and Claudia Griffin of Santa Clarita, the owners and operators of PW Marketing LLC.

The attorney general’s lawsuit marks the first legal pursuit of e-mail spammers since the 1998 law was enacted.

“We hope to signal how seriously we intend to enforce the law,” said a spokesperson for Lockyer, who explained that the reason it has taken the attorney general four years to prosecute illegal spammers is due to the complexity and time-consuming nature of that type of investigation.

The spokesperson also attributed the delay to consumers, who are responsible for notifying the attorney general’s office when they have been victimized by illegal spammers.

“It has taken a while for consumers to kick in help,” said the spokesperson.

The attorney general alleges that PW Marketing violated California consumer protection statutes that make sending unsolicited commercial e-mail illegal in the state of California, unless the sender includes a toll-free telephone number, a valid e-mail address through which the recipient can request to be removed from the list, or includes the words “ADV” or “ADV:ADLT” in the subject line, which designates the e-mail as either commercial or containing adult material.

By definition, spam is not illegal unless it is sent to a California resident, and e-mail spam containing pornographic material is not illegal unless the sender fails to identify the nature of the e-mail in the subject line, the spokesperson said.

Willis and Griffin are accused of having sent millions of unsolicited commercial e-mails promoting books and software designed to help establish other illegal e-mail campaigns.

Willis and Griffin advertised their service as “California Gold,” and claimed to be in possession of a list detailing upwards of 4 million e-mail addresses belonging to California residents and businesses.

That list was available for purchase through PW Marketing for $349.00. The company also claimed to have additional e-mail lists pertaining to other states.

According to Attorney General Lockyer, the practice of illegal spam costs individuals and businesses an estimated $8 billion each year.

“In filing this action, we are sounding a warning that we will track down and prosecute those who send illegal spam,” Lockyer said in a statement.

Furthering California’s war against spam, California Governor Gray Davis recently strengthened the 1998 anti-spam law by signing two bills in September of this year that make the sending of spam via fax machines and cell phones illegal.

Bills AB 2944 and AB 1769 will go into effect by January 1, 2003, and were created to align state law with federal law in the nationwide ban against spam.

California’s previous law against unsolicited faxes required junk faxes to include a toll free number in their solicitation so that those on the receiving end could request to be spared the intrusion on their privacy. The former law also did little to protect consumers from having their own fax paper, toner, and telephone lines mishandled by spammers.

Similarly, the new law makes it unlawful for businesses and organizations to send spam solicitations via cell phone or pager text massaging, which are generally charged directly to the consumer.

Under the shield of AB 2944 and AB 1769, individuals and groups will be able to file lawsuits of up to $500 per unsolicited fax or text message against companies that disobey the law.

The Attorney General’s office encourages California consumers to help enforce all laws against spammers and to contact their local prosecutors or file complaints with the Attorney General’s Office if they believe they are the target of illegal e-mail campaigns.