The federal complaint filed in Houston by Attorney General Greg Abbot names Ryan Samuel Pitylak, a University of Texas at Austin student, and Mark Stephen Trotter of California as controlling three spam-sending companies registered in Nevada. The companies are PayPerAction LLC, Leadplex LLC and Leadplex Inc.
The watchdog group SpamHaus.org ranks the defendants as the fourth largest illegal spam operation in the world, according to Abbott.
"Spam is one of the most aggravating and pervasive problems facing consumers today," Abbott said in a statement announcing the suit. "Unwanted, unsolicited e-mail clogs computers of Texas consumers and Texas businesses, wasting precious time and money. Texans are fed up, and today's action aims to give them relief by shutting down one of the world's worst spam operations."
The complaint was filed under the federal CAN-SPAM act of 2003, which carries penalties of $250 per violation, up to $2 million. The defendants also are accused of violating the Texas Electronic Mail and Solicitation Act, which allows for penalties of up to $10 per unlawful e-mail or $25,000 per day, and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which authorizes penalties of up to $20,000 per violation.
Pitylak and Trotter established PayPerAction in 2002, allegedly operating the company under 250 assumed names to fool Internet users into believing that they had received e-mail from different companies.
The pair allegedly used misleading subject lines to get recipients to open e-mails with hyped-up language pitching bogus mortgage-refinancing services. Personal information provided by consumers was allegedly sold as sales leads to other companies for as much as $28 per lead.
The attorney general's office was helped in its investigation by Microsoft Corp., which forwarded e-mail captured in its trap e-mail accounts. In addition, Dewey Coffin, an Austin resident, set up trap e-mail accounts on his personal server, and also forwarded the defendants' alleged unsolicited e-mails.
Internet service providers and the Federal Trade Commission also assisted in the investigation.
In a six-month period of last year, undercover accounts forwarded 24,000 e-mails allegedly sent by the defendants, Abbott said.
According to ISPs who reported to Congress in 2003, unsolicited e-mail accounted for more than half of all e-mail traffic, up from about 7 percent in 2001, Abbott said.
Last year, the U.S. accounted for 42.1 percent of the world's spam, according to anti-virus firm Sophos, based in the United Kingdom. Second was South Korea, 13.4 percent; followed by China, Canada and Brazil.