Robert Alan Soloway, a 27-year-old Seattle resident dubbed "Spam King" by federal agents, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with multiple counts of fraud, wire fraud, e-mail fraud, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering. If convicted on the various counts, Soloway could face decades in prison.
"It's good news for consumers," said John Levine, a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE). "Soloway has been taunting the antispam community and federal officials for years, essentially daring them to come after him, and they finally did."
In a 24-page indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Washington, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey C. Sullivan said that Soloway has been operating his illegal scheme since November 2003, and sent out tens of millions of spam e-mails in an effort to drum up business for his e-mail advertising software (which in turn would send out additional spam).
Educating Juries on E-Mail
Levine said that given Soloway's notoriety and relatively high profile, CAUCE had been wondering why it was taking so long for federal authorities to take action against him. "And now we know," Levine said. "Federal agents were building a very detailed and thorough list of charges that is not likely to fall apart at trial."
The other challenge for federal prosecutors is the complexity of Internet-based fraud cases. Levine said that he served as a technical expert on one of the first spam cases in Virginia and prosecutors "spent a fortune" educating the jury on the technology involved.
"It's definitely a little more complicated than 'A man walks into a bank with a gun and walks out with money,'" Levine said. "But I think that it will get steadily easier for federal prosecutors to bring these cases as the technology becomes more familiar to people."
Not A CAN-SPAM Case
What might surprise some people is that despite the fact that it involves e-mail and one of the nation's top spammers, the CAN-SPAM Act plays a minor role.
"If you read the indictment," Levine pointed out, "the CAN-SPAM Act is barely mentioned. That reaffirms what CAUCE has been saying, that the CAN-SPAM Act is not in fact an effective law enforcement statute. Instead, this case is built on traditional criminal offenses like wire fraud and money laundering."
At an arraignment on Wednesday afternoon, Soloway pleaded not guilty to all charges and was ordered held until a hearing on Monday. In addition to seeking Soloway's conviction on the various charges, the government is also looking to recover $773,000 that it says Soloway earned from his fraudulent business.
Some reports have suggested that Soloway's arrest will cause a noticeable decrease in spam, but Levine suggested that any decline would unfortunately be minimal. "There's no question that [Soloway's] been responsible for a lot of spam," Levine said, "and his arrest will help. But the amount of spam has increased so much over the last couple of years that even his arrest won't make much difference."