A tidal wave of legal action against spammers began yesterday, as major US ISPs AOL, EarthLink, Microsoft and Yahoo filed suit against 220 spammers.

The 220 are accused of despatching "hundreds of millions" of unsolicited commercial emails.

Yahoo senior vice president and general counsel Mike Callahan said the actions target the worst spammers who use what he called "outlaw tactics". The lawsuits are among the first filed under new US anti-spam laws.

"If you're a spammer this is not a great day for you," said Randall Boe, AOL executive vice president and general counsel. "Ultimately, we're going to locate you and sue you."

The lawsuits, filed in federal courts in California, Virginia, Georgia and Washington state, name just five individuals and five companies, with at least 215 other defendants as unnamed "John Does." The companies said they are confident they can use the expanded law-enforcement tools available under the new CAN-SPAM laws to identify the unnamed defendants and shut them down.

"We're only a couple of subpoenas away from standing on someone's doorstep," said Les Seagraves, vice president, chief privacy officer and assistant general counsel at EarthLink.

The four ISPs could not give an exact number of spammers targeted in the lawsuits because they are still investigating the cases. The four companies are sharing information in order to track and identify spammers. The companies were unable to calculate what percentage of their spam traffic was caused by the defendants, with representatives saying only that the defendants have sent hundreds of millions of pieces of spam.

The case

The alleged spammers under fire in the lawsuits include those sending out advertisements for penis-enlargement pills, weight loss supplements, adult-content Web sites, mortgage offers, cable descramblers, university diplomas and Viagra, among other products. The spam identified in the lawsuits violated one or more sections of the CAN-SPAM law, including false "from" addresses, no physical address in the email and no option to unsubscribe. Much of the spam also advertised illegal products or used deceptive advertising, according to the ISPs.

Although many of the defendants use computers outside of the US to send the spam, the companies believe they will be able to use the CAN-SPAM law to bring the defendants into US court, said Nancy Anderson, deputy general counsel at Microsoft. Spammers who believe the US can't prosecute them because they operate offshore believe a "myth," Anderson said. Their spam causes damage to US ISPs and consumers, she added.

The four companies, which formed an antispam alliance in April 2003, filed six lawsuits:

AOL has filed a lawsuit against Davis Wolfgang Hawke, also known as Dave Bridger, Braden Bournival and an unknown number of John Does, for allegedly sending millions of pieces of spam advertising Pinacle penis-enlargement pills, weight-loss supplements, hand-held devices called "personal lie detectors" and a product called the "Banned CD". The lawsuit, filed in District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, also alleges that Hawke also offered to provide a number of spam-related services, including millions of AOL addresses and "bulk friendly hosting" on servers located in China, Latin America and other countries.

Emails from Hawke and the others have generated at least 100,000 complaints from AOL users, according to the company. A message left at a telephone number identified as Bridger's was not immediately returned.

A second AOL lawsuit, also filed in the Virginia court, against 40 John Does accused of advertising several products, including adult-themed Web sites and business opportunities. The senders' identities are hidden through fraudulent means and contain misleading subject lines, according to AOL. This group of alleged spammers has prompted more than 500,000 complaints from AOL users.

EarthLink has filed suit against 75 John Doe spammers advertising prescription drugs, mortgage leads, cable descramblers, university diplomas and get-rich-quick schemes, among other products. The lawsuit, filed in District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, accuses the defendants of hiding their identities with falsified headers and fake "from" lines, among other tactics.

Microsoft filed in the District Court for the Western District of Washington against JDO Media, based in Florida, and 50 John Does. Microsoft accuses the defendants of using open proxies and false header information to hide their identities while advertising a multilevel marketing program. A search for JDO Media found no contact information.

Microsoft filed a second lawsuit, also in the Washington state court, against 50 John Does doing business as the Super Viagra Group. The defendants allegedly used open proxies and hijacked computers to advertise so-called Super Viagra and a weight-loss patch. The spam also uses misleading transmission information and subject lines, according to Microsoft.

Yahoo filed in the District Court for the Northern District of California against Eric, Matthew and Barry Head, and their companies Gold Disk Canada, Head Programming, and Infinite Technologies Worldwide. Yahoo alleges its members received about 94 million pieces of spam from the Heads in January.

The defendants use open proxies to disguise the origin of their messages, which advertise life insurance, debt consolidation and travel services, Yahoo alleges. The operation also uses deceptive subject lines and sells email addresses to other marketers, Yahoo said. A search for the Heads' contact information was unsuccessful.

CAN-SPAM co-sponsors Senators Conrad Burns and Ron Wyden praised the action: "Today's filing proves that the days of spamming with impunity are finally over, and all those who abuse email and threaten its viability as the Internet's most popular and useful application should take notice," Wyden said.

"I believe this action marks the dawn of a new day for spammers – one in which they face real accountability."