Bennett Haselton wrote in with this weeks amusing and shocking story of high finance, judicial discretion, and oh so much more... he writes "People still ask me if I make enough money suing spammers in Small Claims court to make it worthwhile. I say: What about the entertainment value? Recently I received an e-mail with the subject line: 'Reminder: Link exchange with your site http://slashdot.org' Finally, I thought, someone else who agrees that I'm carrying the site's entire success on my shoulders. I even hurried off to check the registration of the slashdot.org domain to see if they had made the transfer official in honor of my contributions, but apparently the domain is still being squatted by some outfit calling itself "SourceForge"." I'm shocked that a legitimate businessman would make such an error. Read on to see what Bennett does about it.
So I returned to the e-mail, which began, "Dear Webmaster". Scrolling through it, I found the part that I was looking for (I munged the sender's URL slightly, to avoid crashing the poor guy's server from all the traffic I'm sure he's already getting):
As you know, reciprocal linking benefits both of us by raising our search rankings and generating more traffic to both of our sites. Please post a link to my site as follows:
Title: Work At Home Business Opportunities | Online Career Training
Description: Your Source, and Resource for starting a Home Business, or Growing the One You're In.
Of course I am always interested in growing the business that I'm in, which is why I served him with papers a few days later under RCW 19.190, the Washington anti-spam law which prohibits e-mails with a "false or misleading subject line".
OK, technically at this point suing spammers in Small Claims is really more of a hobby. I still think that the real future of spammer-suing is in federal court, if you can amass enough damages against a particular company to reach the threshold of $75,000 to bring a federal lawsuit. The idea is not to go after the bottom-feeders who are sending the actual spams from their Mom's basement, but to follow the money and see who is ultimately buying the leads. You can respond to mortgage spams by entering a drop-box phone number and a made-up name, waiting to see who calls you, and then telling them that the person who sold them that lead is generating them illegally and that they shouldn't buy leads from them any more. Next I'll probably try responding to some ads for pills or other shady products by using a temporary one-time-use credit card number that's only authorized up to the amount of the purchase, to see which companies are doing the sales on the back end. (The checkout forms for those pill-hawking pages rarely say the name of the company that will end up on your statement, but the charge on your card has to be from someone.) The only types of spam I can think of where "following the money" wouldn't work, would be pump-and-dump stock spams -- in that case, the beneficiary could be anyone holding stock in the company. The SEC can freeze trading in stocks that are promoted in pump-and-dump but it's still no guarantee of catching the guilty party -- even someone who buys a lot of the company might just be an "innocent" third party who knows it's a scam but hopes to cash in on the price spike (although FAQs suggest that this strategy doesn't work). But for other types of spam, it's already been well documented how you can track it to the financiers without even trying to identify the actual person who pressed "Send".
Of course there's another reason why you'd rather be in federal court. Small Claims anti-spammer cases may not shed a lot of light on the economics behind spam, but they are instructive for what to expect if you ever appear before a District Court judge for any other reason. In this trial, heard by Judge Judith Eiler on November 5, 2007, the defendant telephoned in to the court hearing and said several times that this was a "personal e-mail from me to him" and should be exempt from the anti-spam laws. I said that I didn't think an e-mail with the subject "Link exchange with your site http://slashdot.org" could be considered "personal" since nobody who knew me would think that was my website, and in any case, personal e-mails tend not to start with "Dear Webmaster". But Judge Eiler ruled that this was a personal e-mail after all:
"Um, spam, these are anti-spam laws, which imply that they are mail just sent out in huge bulks, which would be the antithesis of a personal e-mail. And here he puts his name, in fact this is the person that you directly sued rather than somebody that's in a corporation or a company. The court does think that there's some indication that this is a personal-type e-mail. While it may have gone out to a number of people, it doesn't have quite the earmarks."
Below is a copy of the e-mail that the judge was holding when she ruled that it "didn't have the earmarks" of a bulk e-mail:
To: email@example.com Subject: Reminder: Link exchange with your site http://slashdot.org X-PHP-Script: www.theeashblahblah.com/linkmachine/auto.php for 18.104.22.168 Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2007 09:34:26 -0400 From: Roderick Eash Reply-to: firstname.lastname@example.org Message-ID: X-Priority: 3 X-Mailer: PHPMailer [version 1.72] Errors-To: email@example.com MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: multipart/alternative; boundary="b1_b43cabef83c9f9123db7a78ef9a73362" Dear Webmaster, My name is Roderick Eash, and I run the web site Work At Home Business Opportunities | Online Career Training: http://www.theeashblahblah.com/ The other day I wrote you to let you know I'm very interested in exchanging links. I'm sending this reminder in case you didn't receive my first letter. I've gone ahead and posted a link to your site, on this page: http://www.theeashblahblah.com/linkmachine/resources/resources_home_based_business_41.html As you know, reciprocal linking benefits both of us by raising our search rankings and generating more traffic to both of our sites. Please post a link to my site as follows: Title: Work At Home Business Opportunities | Online Career Training URL: http://www.theeashblahblah.com/ Description: Your Source, and Resource for starting a Home Business, or Growing the One You're In. Once you've posted the link, let me know the URL of the page that it's on, by entering it in this form: http://www.theeashblahblah.com/linkmachine/resources/link_exchange.php?ua=_ua9&site_index=MTg4MTgwMjc%3D You can also use that form to make changes to the text of the link to your site, if you'd like. Thank you very much, Roderick Eash
Every time I write about a spam case, I swear it's the last time. I wonder if judges read that and say to each other, "I'll bet we can get him to do it again." With this ruling, if the subject line "Link exchange with your site http://slashdot.org" is not "false or misleading", does that mean I can claim slashdot.org as my site after all?
So I don't think that suing spammers in Small Claims will make much difference in the long run. But the odds are that you might have a case come before a Distict Court judge at some point in your life. Consider that the same type of judge who thought the message above was a "personal e-mail", might someday be deciding whether you're responsible for $10,000 in damage to someone's car, or whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you were guilty of rape, or whether you get to keep custody of your child. There's no joke here, just something I thought you should keep in mind.
So I'm hardly a victim, but it could have been worse; I could have gotten a spam -- excuse me, a personal e-mail -- with a subject like "Your g1rl says you n3ed a b1gger m3mber". I would have been pissed if the judge had ruled that subject line was not misleading.