Arrest, but no relief from IM spam

A New York man was arrested on criminal charges after he allegedly sent over 1.5 million unsolicited instant messenger spam messages, or spim.

A New York man was arrested last week and charged with sending out unsolicited instant messages, marking the first known case of criminal action being taken against someone accused of sending "spim," or instant message (IM) spam.

Anthony Greco of Cheektowaga, New York, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 16, and charged with violating the federal CAN-SPAM Act, after the 18 year-old allegedly sent over 1.5 million instant messages advertising mortgage refinancing services and adult pornography to users of MySpace.com's IM service, according to a statement released by U.S. Attorney Debra W. Yang.

The news comes on the heels of a new survey, from Pew Internet & American Life Project, which reports that approximately 17 million adults have received spim.

In the U.S. Attorney's case, authorities allege that, starting in October 2004, Greco fraudulently created thousands of accounts at MySpace, an online community in which members can write Web logs, share pictures and send instant messages. Greco sent spim messages from the accounts, according to the U.S. Attorney's statement.

The young man allegedly contacted MySpace.com and demanded that he be given exclusive rights to send commercial e-mail to MySpace.com users. When MySpace.com did not respond, he threatened to share his technique for sending spim messages to MySpace.com users with the spamming community and "open a Pandora's box of Spam" on MySpace's network, the statement said.

The U.S. Secret Service and Los Angeles Police Department's Electronic Crimes Task Force investigated the case.

Prosecutors are charging Greco with threatening to cause damage to MySpace.com's computers and with intent to extort, in addition to the CAN-SPAM Act violations. He faces a maximum penalty of 18 years in federal prison if convicted on all three offenses, the U.S. Attorney's statement said.

Greco's case may be the first criminal case brought against a spimmer, but it is not the first spim case to make it to the courts. In October, America Online Inc. (AOL) filed suit against 20 "John Does" in a case that alleged violations of the CAN-SPAM Act for sending bulk IM solicitations over AOL's Instant Messenger network.

Those spim cases are sure to be followed by more, if the results of a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project are to be believed.

The Pew telephone survey of 2,200 U.S. adults, conducted in January and early February, suggests that IM use is widespread in the U.S.

The organization estimated that around 42 percent of the country's 134 million online adults, 52 million adults, use IM. Thirty percent of them, or an estimated 17 million adults, have received spim, according to a Pew statement.

Younger Internet users are far more likely to use IM, and to receive spim, the survey found. Sixty-six percent of Internet users younger than 30 who were surveyed reported using IM, compared to just 35 percent of Internet users older than 30, the survey said. Thirty-nine percent of respondents less than 30 reported receiving spim, compared with around 27 percent of those over 30.

In fact, real numbers on IM use in the U.S. may be much higher, given that data on the most avid IM users -- those under the age of 18 -- was not part of the survey, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

It is too early to tell if spim will become as big a problem as its e-mail cousin, spam. However, IM is an important part of many Internet users' lives, especially those under 30, and marketers will likely figure out a way to use it and get information and sales pitches to consumers, Rainie said.

"This is a target-rich environment that all sorts of actors will figure out how to exploit as the months and years unfold," he said.

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