WASHINGTON – The federal government is planning -- for the first time -- to go after "spammers" who swamp Internet users with deceptive e-mail offers, Federal Trade Commission officials said Thursday.
The FTC will announce enforcement actions as early as next week against online marketers who use deceptive claims in their e-mail pitches, said J. Howard Beales, director of the FTC's enforcement bureau.
It will be the first time the consumer-protection agency has specifically targeted spammers in an investigation, Beales said.
"We're interested in the spams where the message itself is deceptive. We think if that went away, there would be a whole lot less spam in the world, and that's a place to start," Beales told Reuters.
Spam has long been a hot-button issue for Internet users, who often find their inboxes clogged with unsolicited offers for pornography, fake diplomas, and get-rich-quick schemes.
Internet users received an average of 571 pieces of unsolicited commercial e-mail in 2001, a number expected to rise to nearly 1,500 by 2006, according to Jupiter Media Metrix.
Currently 18 states regulate commercial e-mail, but attempts to pass a national antispam law have stumbled over opposition from direct marketers who say their activities would be unfairly limited.
The FTC will use existing laws banning false or deceptive trade practices to go after spammers, Beales said.
Spammers who offer consumers the ability to opt out of their e-mail lists, but instead bombard them with more junk e-mail when they respond, will find themselves in the agency's cross-hairs, he said.
Pyramid schemes, get-rich-quick opportunities, chain letters and other common online scams will be targeted as well, he said.
"There's an enormous range of stuff where what they're trying to tell you is essentially fraudulent," he said.
Spammers are not likely to face large fines from FTC actions. In deceptive-trade cases, the agency can usually only force companies to give back profits and pursue "structural" remedies that modify future behavior.
FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson said the agency's actions were a good start, but that spammers would continue to pose a problem as long as they were able to buy lists of customers and pester them without consent.
"They're aiming their attention at the barn door after the horse has escaped," Thompson said.
Congress should pass a law to give consumers additional privacy protections online, he said.
Three of the other four commissioners have said no new privacy laws are needed.
Consumers can report spam to the FTC by forwarding it to uce+ftc.gov. The e-mail address receives about 10,000 messages per day, Beales said.