Court orders spammers to pay $236M to Iowa ISP

A federal judge has ordered an Arizona couple to pay more than US$236 million for sending millions of spam messages to a small Iowa ISP (Internet service provider).

Henry Perez and his wife Suzanne Bartok were ordered to pay the damages -- amounting to $10 per bulk e-mail -- following a four-year court case in which the judge found that they had bombarded CIS Internet Services of Clinton, Iowa, over a four-month period in 2003.

According to a ruling by Judge John Jarvey of Iowa federal court, Perez and Bartok used a program called Bulk Mailing 4 Dummies to send millions of e-mails to CIS servers, forcing the company to undergo an expensive server upgrade and to dedicate three servers to blocking spam.

Starting in 2001, CIS gradually became overwhelmed by unsolicited e-mail that came from a variety of sources, according to company owner Robert Kramer III. By 2003, the company was processing about 500 million spam messages every day.

Kramer thinks that he may have been hit with extra spam because his company's cis.net domain was confusingly similar to the cis.com domain once used by CompuServe, at one time one of the largest ISPs in the U.S.

The attacks cut into CIS's bandwidth, making it harder for customers to surf the Web and ultimately costing Kramer a lot of business. His company's client base dropped from about 5,000 customers in 2001 to just 1,200 by late 2004.

"There were millions of e-mails being delivered to us for each spam campaign to users that didn't exist on our servers," Kramer said in an interview. "It was do or die: it wasn't just a nuisance for us."

Perez and Bartok had argued that they were not spammers and that the e-mail messages they used were legitimately generated, but the judge didn't buy it, writing in his Sept. 30 order that their explanation was simply "not credible."

"The court simply does not believe Mr. Perez or Ms. Bartok," Jarvey wrote.

Since the dark days of 2003, CIS has filed suit against many spammers and so far it has received about 10 judgments in its favor, Kramer said. Collecting the money has proven to be difficult, however. Many of the spammers have gone out of business, moved their money overseas or simply hidden from sight, he said.

In fact, Kramer was awarded a judgment against Perez and Bartok's company, AMP Dollar Savings, in late 2004, but he has so far been unable to collect.

Spam volumes have dropped significantly over the past five years, Kramer said. Now CIS receives between 10 million and 15 million unwanted messages each day, a more manageable amount.

Kramer said that this drop may be due, in part, to his litigation. "Certainly some of the people we went after would have continued doing it if they hadn't been held accountable."

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