Lawsuit draws bead on shifty spammers
EarthLink seeks to put Alabama Gang out of business
By BILL HUSTED
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/18/04
The Alabama Gang sounds more like a name out of the old Wild West than from cyberspace. But there's no mistaking its membership, which includes some of the biggest guns in e-mail spamming.
There's Alyxsandra Sachs, a Californian who once was a producer for television's Geraldo Rivera.
They are alleged to be among 16 people and businesses in the Alabama Gang, the most professional and technologically sophisticated group of e-mail spammers that EarthLink says it has ever encountered.
The Atlanta-based Internet service provider, or ISP, contends that gang members used stolen credit cards to establish Internet accounts, then used those accounts to send the type of spam consumers hate most pitches for herbal Viagra, drugs to enhance body parts, even offers to sell spamming software.
Until now, the Alabama Gang didn't have a face, just a name inspired by the spammers' practice of using telephone lines near Birmingham to send their e-mail. But in an amended lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal district court here, EarthLink began naming names as it tries to put the spammers out of business.
Tracking down the gang has been difficult. This is no group of amateurs, says EarthLink.
"These are not the people who are sending out of a garage," said Paul Wellborn, an Atlanta lawyer hired by EarthLink to unmask the gang and prosecute the spammers.
Wellborn said the gang operated with stealthy skill in the shadowy world of cyberspace, creating Web sites that vanished before they could be traced. Complex computer technology was used to cover tracks.
Possible criminal case
In one instance, a remotely controlled computer secretly sent spam.
Wellborn said many of the defendants in the lawsuit "have been recognized as some of the most notorious spammers in existence."
No monetary damages are specified in the lawsuit. When EarthLink filed the original lawsuit in August, the company said it would seek more than $5 million in damages. The largest judgment awarded to EarthLink, which has never lost a spamming case, was for $25 million against Khan C. Smith in 2002 for online identity theft and credit card fraud.
The spammers may face more than civil penalties. Wellborn said the U.S. attorney here has been in contact with EarthLink to investigate whether criminal cases might follow the civil action. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to confirm or deny any criminal investigation.
It wouldn't be the first time an EarthLink spamming case led to criminal prosecution. In 2003, Howard Carmack of Buffalo, N.Y., was arrested and prosecuted for four felony counts and two misdemeanors, based on an EarthLink civil spamming case that resulted in a $16.4 million judgment. His trial on the criminal charges is to begin in March.
"At this point in the case, I can't characterize anyone as a criminal," Wellborn said of the Alabama Gang. "But I can say they are professional e-mailers."
Karen Cashion, an in-house lawyer for EarthLink, said the company faced its most severe technological challenge yet as it tried to identify the spammers. Web sites advertising the gang's products popped up like mushrooms and disappeared as quickly.
Because of the number of fraudulent Internet accounts, it was difficult to identify all of the computers used by the spammers, EarthLink said.
"We know of at least 100 of these fraudulent accounts," Wellborn said, and each account sent millions of spam e-mails.
EarthLink says it's impossible to know exactly how many e-mails were sent, or whether the gang is still operating.
"The more sophisticated the spammer, the more difficult it is to know," Wellborn said. "It's like the question: Who's the best counterfeiter in the world? That's the person who was never caught. So this may just be the tip of the iceberg."
The spammers felt at home with the technology of the Internet, Wellborn said.
"They co-located computer equipment at a tiny Alabama ISP," Wellborn said. "Then they set it up in such a way that the e-mailer could remotely contact that equipment and cause it to dial in to EarthLink" to send spam.
One of the alleged spammers had a commercial account at the Alabama Internet service provider, he said. Wellborn would not name that spammer, or the Internet provider. He said he had no reason to believe the company knew the equipment was being used to send spam.
Also named in the lawsuit are Albert Andoot [Ahdoot] of Woodland Hills, Calif.; Net Global Marketing of Los Angeles; Andy Pope of either Tennessee or Nevada; Scott Maslowe of Michigan; Fred Lusky of Michigan; Debbie Cawdrey of Medina, Tenn.; Michael Starnes of Las Vegas; Netbenders LLC of Southfield, Mich.; ISN, LLC, also of Southfield; Marc Milline, also known as Mark Valentino, of Orlando; David Burstyn of Florida; Pathing Networks of Carson City, Nev.; Herbal Groups of Valencia, Calif.; and Path Galvin, also of Valencia.
The EarthLink lawsuit also names two alleged spammers in a case unrelated to the Alabama Gang: Steve Goodwin of Des Moines, Iowa, and his brother, Derek Goodwin of North Platte, Neb.
Attempts to locate the defendants or their attorneys for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Link to full Atlanta Journal-Constitution article at archive.org
The Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO) collates information and evidence on entities with a history of spamming or providing spam services, and entities affiliated or otherwise connected with them, for the purpose of assisting ISP Abuse Desks and Law Enforcement Agencies.