US Federal regulators accused seven companies Wednesday of hiring others to send illegal e-mails with pornographic messages to tempt consumers to visit adult Internet sites.
The government said four of the firms already agreed to pay nearly $1.2 million to settle the charges, making it among the most aggressive government crackdowns on pornographic e-mail operations.
The Federal Trade Commission described the practice as "electronic flashing" and said at least some of the unwanted e-mails were sent to children. The threat of children unwittingly receiving smut in their inboxes helped drive the US government to impose restrictions on sending commercial e-mails last year.
The FTC said the messages were not prominently marked "sexually explicit," did not include instructions for consumers to block future e-mails and did not include a postal address, all required under federal law.
Consumers complained about receiving the pornographic e-mails and forwarded copies of the troublesome messages to a special e-mail address set up by the FTC (spam(at)uce.gov), said Jonathan M. Kraden, an attorney with the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "We received thousands of messages," Kraden said.
The FTC said the seven companies did not send e-mails directly to consumers but operated affiliate programmes, paying others to send unwanted messages to drive Internet traffic to adult Web sites. The FTC said under the "Can Spam" law, defendants in such cases are liable because they paid others to send e-mails on their behalf.
The government said investigators from Microsoft Corp. helped track the companies. Microsoft, which operates its MSN online subscription service and offers free "Hotmail" e-mail accounts, analyzed the pornographic sites advertised in the unwanted e-mails to identify the companies responsible, the FTC said.
The FTC said it directed the Justice Department to file civil lawsuits against three of the companies: T.J. Web Productions LLC of Henderson, Nev.; Cyberheat Inc. of Tucson, Ariz.; and Impulse Media Group Inc. of Seattle. The lawsuits seek unspecified payment to the government for "every violation" of the federal anti-spam law.
The attorney for T.J. Web Productions, Lawrence G. Walters of Altamonte Springs, Fla., said the company was still negotiating with the Justice Department. Walters said there were "legitimate concerns and legal variables" over the government's claims. "If necessary, our client is prepared to litigate those issues," he said.
Executives with Cyberheat did not return telephone messages left by The Associated Press. An executive with Impulse Media Group, Seth Schermerhorn, declined to comment immediately.
The FTC said four of the companies agreed to settle cases against them. BangBros.com Inc. of Miami agreed to pay $650,000; MD Media of Bingham Farms, Mich., agreed to pay $238,743; APC Entertainment Inc. of Davie, Fla., will pay $220,000; and Pure Marketing Solutions LLC of Miami and Internet Matrix Technology of New Orleans will together pay $50,000, the FTC said.
The attorney for MD Media, Danny E. Adams of Kelley Drye in Washington, did not immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail request for comment. The phone numbers listed on Internet records for BangBros.com and Pure Marketing Solutions were disconnected, and the companies did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.
Executives for APC Entertainment did not respond to a telephone message from the AP.