FTC: 'Can Spam' Law Only a Mild Deterrent

The law meant to curb large amounts of unwanted e-mail went into effect on Jan. 1, but consumers have found that their expectations of a large drop in spam mailings may have been a little wide-eyed.

"One spammer thinks I have a child, and have reproduced, and it's a toddler running around; and then Viagra thinks I need help in that department. I think maybe they should e-mail back and forth and leave me out of it," said John Forrest Ales, one e-mail user who says he regularly finds his inbox filled with annoying e-mail from companies that have no idea who he is.

Ales and many other consumers thought the "can spam" law (search), signed by President Bush on Dec. 16, would stem the flow of unwanted e-mail pitches, but the Federal Trade Commission (search) says that's not the way the new rules work.

"There certainly hasn't been any significant reduction in the number of spams that have been forwarded to our mail boxes," said Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The new law does not make spam itself illegal, but it does require marketers to stop some of the shadier methods they use. For instance, e-mail marketers cannot use false headers, "subject" or "from" line information.

Pornographic spammers must clearly label their advertisements, and senders must provide valid information so messages can be traced. Companies sending bulk commercial e-mail must also provide consumers an "opt out" (search) option that they must also honor. Somewhere on the mail, a link must be placed so that recipients can click on it if they don't want any more mail.

The FTC can fine violators $11,000 per violation — that's per e-mail address, which could prove costly for marketers who send millions of e-mails a day. In some cases, the Department of Justice, the enforcement agency, can charge spammers up to $5 million in fines. Convicted violators could also face up to five years in jail.

Michael Goodman, an attorney at the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection (search), said as far as he knows no enforcement has yet been taken against any spammers. He added that he has not seen any indication yet whether the new law has deterred the number of spam e-mails. Some experts say that is in part because spammers have already figured out quick ways to get around the rules.

"They are in this business to make money, and they make a good living. And so they are going to continue to innovate, and it is very much a cat-and-mouse game with these folks," said Ryan Hamlin, general manager of Microsoft's Anti-Spam Technology and Strategy Group.

Microsoft has already come up with technology designed to help consumers protect their e-mail from spam. The new SmartScreen Technology (search) allows e-mailers to identify spam, which computers then enter into a program that helps filters learn how to recognize and block spam.

Hamlin said he believes the filtering technology is finally starting to get ahead of the spammers, which he acknowledged, leads spammers to send out more mail to try to get around the filters.

Aside from the new rules, the law encourages the FTC to create a "do-not-spam" list that consumers can sign up for to prevent junk e-mailers from contacting them. A similar "do-not-call" (search) telephone registry was put into effect last year to stop telemarketers from calling people's homes.

But that list may never come into existence. Goodman said the hardest problem to overcome is how to enforce the registry. He said the FTC would have a lot of disappointed consumers on its hands if it had people sign up on the list while being unable to stop the spam.

The second problem he noted is that it is extremely difficult to protect the security and privacy of the people who sign up and to limit access to the list only to those people who are supposed to have it.

"We have had doubts about whether it would be enforceable because it is so difficult to find spammers that a do-not-spam list may not make much of a reduction," Beales said.

"The concern I have and others in the industry [have] is the security around the list," Hamlin added. "You can imagine that it is a spammer's dream if they ever got a hold of that list because then you've just inherited a list of millions and millions of valid e-mail accounts."

Some industry and government officials say that consumers should not expect the government to slow down spam, either through legislation or regulation. Business will eventually solve the problem of unwanted e-mail with spam-blocking technology (search).

In the meantime, business and government sources recommend several ways to avoid spam — keeping anti-virus and filtering software up to date, avoiding distribution of one's e-mail addresses to unknown solicitors and not clicking on any links on e-mails that offer options for future mailings.

Fox News' Caroline Shively contributed to this report.