Federal Sweep Nets Spammers, Cyber-Criminals

Operation Web Snare has yielded 150 arrests or convictions since it started in June. But will the Justice Department's largest effort yet succeed in stemming cyber-crime?

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that it has taken action against more than 150 individuals accused of spamming and other Internet-related crimes, a crackdown welcomed by the industry but seen as doing little to curb the spam plague.

The Justice Department announced that Operation Web Snare, begun June 1, has produced the arrests or convictions of more than 150 individuals and the return of 117 criminal complaints, indictments and informations.

The effort, thought to be the largest one yet taken against cyber-criminals, is largely directed against those who run "phishing" schemes–sending e-mails designed to look like theyre from legitimate companies such as banks and online retailers in an effort to harvest credit card numbers or other personal information from unsuspecting consumers.

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Arrests announced as part of the operation involved hacking, wire fraud, blackmail and denial-of-service attacks. A part of Operation Web Snare known as Operation Slam Spam has resulted in arrests and other actions taken against spammers, according to the Direct Marketing Association, which supported the effort and contributed $500,000 toward it.

But DMA officials said they did not know how many of the arrests were related to spam. DOJ officials could not be reached for comment.

Previous federal initiatives to curb spam have largely flopped. Only 0.54 percent of all commercial e-mail last month conformed to the CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act, according to e-mail security company MX Logic Inc.

MX Logic said 84 percent of all e-mail traffic in July was spam—a record high. FrontBridge Technologies Inc. pegged spam as accounting for 85 percent of all enterprise e-mail in July, also a record high.

Ken Meszaros, network design manager at LandAmerica Financial Group Inc., said he welcomed the DOJs efforts, though he questioned how effective it would be at stopping spam.

"I think its helpful, but its difficult to contain anything outside of the country," said Meszaros, in Richmond, Va. "Well always have to use technology to help us block spam.

"Any way the government could help is fine, but I dont see it resolving the issue," he said. "They should keep on doing what they can do, but they have limited control over the Internet."

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John Mozena, co-founder and vice president of an anti-spam advocacy group called CAUCE (Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail), said he also welcomes the action but that such actions so far have made little more than a dent in the spam battle.

"Spammers are still operating on the general assumption that the likelihood of getting prosecuted is low enough that the amount of money they can make spamming outweighs the risk of getting caught and prosecuted," he said, in Detroit.

Mozena said CAN-SPAM doesnt even go far enough in defining spam, that enforcement of the act has been "haphazard" and that penalties for those convicted often are relatively minor.

Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, defended CAN-SPAM and enforcement of the act to date, despite the dismal effectiveness rate of CAN-SPAM cited by MX Logic.

"No doubt, any law has to have enforcement in order to be effective, but it takes time to build those cases," said Cerasale, in Washington, D.C. "This is only the first round. There will be many, many more rounds after this."

Cerasale said the DMA has invested its own time and financial resources in bringing spammers to justice.

Nearly 43 percent of spam comes from the United States, security software firm Sophos Plc. reported in a new study released this week, making the country the largest creator of spam. South Korea is a distant second at just over 15 percent.

The arrests announced this week did involve foreign nationals of Nigeria, Ukraine and Pakistan, in addition to American citizens, though none of the highlighted arrests involved spammers.

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