Spam King faces 26-year jail term after pleading guilty

The notorious spammer authorities dubbed “the King of Spam” is facing a possible 26-year jail sentence after pleading guilty in Seattle on Friday to charges of fraud and tax evasion.

Robert Soloway, 28, had already been found guilty of spam charges in several civil cases — Microsoft won a US$7.8 million judgment against him in 2005 — but had avoided paying fines in those cases.

The criminal charges to which he pleaded guilty on Friday followed his arrest in 2007 by the U.S. Justice Department.

He was arrested on criminal charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in May 2007.

In a 2005 discussion group post, Soloway bragged, “I’ve been sued for hundreds of millions of dollars and have had my business running for over 10 years without ever paying a dime regardless to the outcome of any lawsuits.”

That year, Soloway raked in more than $300,000 from his spam operations, according to his plea agreement.

Soloway has avoided fines in the past, but this time around he may not be so lucky. In addition to the jail time he now faces, he has also agreed to discuss his financial assets while being monitored by a lie detector.

While there have been hundreds of spam prosecutions in the U.S., it is extremely rare for spammers to face criminal charges, and those involved in the matter say that Soloway’s case could serve as a deterrent to other spammers.

In an interview last month, Microsoft Senior Attorney Aaron Kornblum said he thought the prosecution would make other spammers think twice. “There have not been a large number of criminal CAN-SPAM prosecutions in the U.S.,” he said. “This is significant.”

Soloway is set to be sentenced on June 20. The prosecution had been seeking $700,000 in damages when Soloway was first charged nearly a year ago.

When he was arrested in May, Soloway was charged with sending out tens of millions of unsolicited messages – a phenomenon that earned him the dubious title the “Spam King.”
His arrest was hailed as a major triumph in the fight against spam. Many of Soloway’s unsolicited messages were sent out using hacked “zombie” computers infected with botnet software, prosecutors allege.

The United States Attorney’s Office is seeking more than US$770,000 in fines, but Soloway is also facing fraud and identity theft charges that could result in jail time.

If U.S. attorneys can get money out of Robert Soloway, it will be a first. In 2005 Microsoft was awarded a $7.8 million judgement against the Spam King, but it has yet to collect a penny, according to Aaron Kornblum, a senior attorney with Microsoft.

In a May 2005 discussion group post, Soloway correctly predicted that Microsoft would be unable to collect. “I’ve been sued for hundreds of millions of dollars and have had my business running for over 10 years without ever paying a dime regardless to the outcome of any lawsuits,” he wrote.

With Soloway now facing criminal charges under the 2003 CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act) law, however, his case may serve as a deterrent to other spammers, Kornblum said. “There have not been a large number of criminal CAN-SPAM prosecutions in the U.S.,” he said. “This is significant.”

To date, Microsoft has filed 131 lawsuits against spammers in the U.S. Most of them have ended up in a settlement or a judgement against the spammer, Kornblum said. Of those cases, 52 remain open or have been dismissed.

“We have helped change the economics of spam and we’ve done that across multiple fronts,” he said. “Spammers now sit in jail.”

Soloway isn’t the only accused spammer going to trial in Seattle next month. Also coming up in March is a civil case against Impulse Media Group, which is charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with spamming computer users with pornographic e-mails.

Many Internet users may be happy to hear about Soloway’s criminal prosecution, but law enforcement shouldn’t necessarily rush into these criminal cases, said Eric Goldman, an assistant professor with Santa Clara University School of Law who blogs about technology and marketing. “Spam is principally about speech and we should be very reluctant to criminalize speech-based behavior,” he said.

“There’s such an antipathy towards spam that there’s almost a sense that anyone who ever engages in spam is… so evil that they should be punished,” he added.

Goldman calls this attitude “spam exceptionalism.” If people really thought about the issues, however, they wouldn’t necessarily find spam any more invasive than other forms of advertising, like television commercials or junk postal mail, he said.

If criminal prosecutions like Soloway’s are deterring spammers, you wouldn’t know if from looking at your inbox. Security vendor IronPort said that spam volume on the Internet was up 100 percent in 2007, jumping to 120 billion [b] unwanted messages per day.

“I’m not sure that we should be suppressing them from a legal standpoint,” he said. “I’m troubled by many of the prosecutions that I’ve seen of spammers.”

Soloway is set to face a trial by jury on March 24 at the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington.

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