SPAM: Unsolicited Emails

Unsolicited email advertising -- SPAM -- has emerged as one of the top concerns of consumers in Texas, throughout the US and over the entire World Wide Web. Unwanted emails clutter mailboxes and can deliver viruses and worms.

At best,consumers are harried by straightforward but intrusive attempts to sell real services and products. But more often than not, consumers are tempted by shady and deceptive offers that are too often outright scams or frauds. Worse, consumers are repeatedly baited by increasingly sophisticated tricks designed to steal personal financial information.

There is also a significant portion of spam received by consumers that is adult in nature, raising concerns for parents about the appropriateness of material that their children might be exposed to.

Our office hears from consumers every day asking:

  • What can I do about spam?
  • Can you stop this person from sending me this unwanted email?
  • How can I report illegal spam for enforcement action?

The short answer is that this agency's Consumer Protection and Public Health Division is making every effort to address the issue of unsolicited email. However:

  1. Spam as such is not illegal under either federal or Texas law. Consequently, while the law makes it possible to stop certain kinds of spam, enforcement alone will not protect you from the sheer volume of unsolicited email.
  2. The federal "Can Spam" law pre-empts certain portions of the Texas state law and is in some ways less stringent.
  3. A significant portion of the spam you receive either originates from or is routed through one or more foreign countries. These spammers are often outside the reach of any state authority. Enforcement against these spammers will be difficult even on the national level.

The bottom line? However determined and successful the efforts of state and federal enforcement authorities, consumers looking for relief from spam will have to make it a priority to protect their email accounts. Just as you lock the doors and windows of your house at night, you should take steps to protect yourself from incoming email advertisements.

Tips for Protecting Your Mailbox

You can take steps to reduce and manage the flow of unwanted email into your mailbox. If your current email address is receiving an extremely large volume of spam, you are already on a number of active mailing lists. You are probably being spammed from all over the world. You might want to weigh the benefits of closing your account altogether and starting over with a new one, which you can then protect. Although it is inconvenient to change your email address, wading through a large volume of unsolicited mail is time-consuming, too, and no authority in the world today is in a position to stop all the spammers who may be targeting you once your email address is in wide circulation.

One of the most important ways to protect your email address is not to post it on a website if you can avoid it. Spammers regularly "harvest" email addresses from websites. Once you are on one list, your address may be sold to other spammers. Harvesting is now illegal, but that does not mean that the practice has been discontinued by all spammers everywhere. If you need to provide contact information on the Web, you might want to establish a dedicated mailbox just for the purpose of accepting contacts, and maintain a second mailbox for your personal email correspondence. Moreover, think twice about supplying your email address to a website for any reason. If you are registering with a reputable company, read its posted privacy policy. If you choose to provide your email address to a company, look for an option to keep them from sharing your address or sending you periodic email newsletters. Most responsible companies will have a checkbox and will respect your wishes. Think twice and think again, before you respond to any unsolicited email contact.

Work with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to take advantage of all the filters, blocks and other junk mail management techniques they have to offer. Familiarize yourself with the different levels of security available to you. ISPs are under considerable pressure from their own customers to reduce the influx of bulk mail. Most offer information, guidelines, and services to reduce spam. Shop around. Some providers do a better job than others at protecting their customers from spam.

Use the "remove" feature with great caution. A reputable business concerned about customer relations will likely honor your request to be removed from their list. Unscrupulous spammers, however, may use the remove feature to identify active mailboxes, and you may be inviting more, not less, spam.

You can also remove your email address from some national direct email lists, by visiting www.dmachoice.org.

Protect Yourself from Spam-based Fraud

The Office of the Attorney General is dedicated to educating consumers about Internet fraud. If you once fall prey to some of the dangerous schemes circulating on the Internet today, the damage can be devastating, and the chances that the perpetrator will be caught or your money recovered are, frankly, quite slim. Many of the most vicious schemes originate in foreign coountries, where even our federal government is challenged to investigate or prosecute. Governments of other countries do actively cooperate to identify and apprehend perpetrators of foreign lotteries and Nigerian advance fee frauds. But our most effective weapon against these criminals is to educate consumers.

  • You did not win a foreign lottery. Do not send "fees" or "taxes." These are crooks. You will lose your money.
  • The deposed "president" of an African nation, or his "widow," or his "son," is not going to deposit tens of millions of dollars in your bank account. The emailer wants your account number so he can raid it.
  • Do not send a buyer the difference between the price of an item you are selling and an overly large cashier's check. The check is counterfeit. It may be such a good counterfeit that your bank won't even realize it until it is too late.
  • No one representing your credit card company, any reputable company, or a governmental agency is going to email you to "verify" your personal financial information. Be aware also that if an email of this nature contains a link to a Web site, that site may be a deceptive mirror of a real company's website. The phony site has been constructed just for you -- to steal your identity.
  • Buy products and services through spam solicitations at your peril. Spam offers abound with fantastic promises, unrealistic allure, and dirt-cheap prices. The same offers on TV, in magazines, or on the street would be equally suspicious. If you can't believe what a great product, what a great price, what a great offer --- then DON'T believe it.

In an effort to educate consumers, we issue regular Consumer Alerts. Sign up on our email subscriptions page to receive notifications of new Consumer Alerts. Read our ID Theft page for more information about protecting yourself from that devastating crime.

State and Federal Anti-Spam Laws

A federal law, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, was passed in 2004 in order to address the problem of spam. The CAN-SPAM Act gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) authority to enforce its provisions and pursue penalties for violations, and also authorizes this office to enforce certain provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act.

Like the Texas anti-spam law, the federal law does not make spam illegal. Rather, it sets certain standards for email marketers to follow. Unfortunately, it also supersedes certain portions of the Texas law and is in some ways less stringent.

Under the CAN-SPAM Act, unsolicited email advertisements must have a functioning return email address, the legitimate physical address of the mailer, and a way for people to opt-out of future mailings. The Act also prohibits deceptive subject lines and false or misleading header information. The Act also requires that commerical emails be identified as advertisements. The CAN-SPAM act also has enhanced penalties for certain unscrupulous conduct such as "harvesting" email addresses from Web sites, generating email addresses using "dictionary attacks," using automated means to register multiple email accounts from which to send spam, and relaying emails through a computer or network without permission.

The Act also allows the Department of Justice to seek criminal penalties, including imprisonment, against commercial emailers who engage in certain misconduct. For example, sending spam with false header information, using a computer to relay or retransmit multiple commercial messages to deceive or mislead the recipient about the origin of the message, registering for multiple email accounts or domain names using false information can all subject a person to criminal prosecution. It is also a criminal offense to send spam containing sexually oriented material that is not properly identified as "SEXUALLY EXPLICIT" in the subject line.

It is a violation of Texas law if the subject line of the email is misleading about the content.

Reporting Spam

Child pornography is illegal. You can report child pornography online by forwarding the site address to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). You may want to view additional information about reporting child pornography at the U.S. Department of Justice Web site.

The Federal Trade Commission also investigates complaints about spam email. You can forward spam directly to the commission at spam@uce.gov. If you want to file a complaint about a specific company that sent you an unsolicited commercial email, visit the 'File A Complaint Online' section of the FTC Web site.

This office also accepts consumer complaints about violations of the Texas anti-spam law. However, we have access to the Federal Trade Commission's database of complaints so it is not necessary for you to forward all of your spam to us.

The Office of the Attorney General cannot prevent you from receiving unsolicited email advertisements, nor can we intervene on behalf of any private individual who is being spammed. We can however, take legal action against flagrant offenders whose spamming affects large numbers of consumers.

For assistance with your own mailbox, contact your internet service provider. Read the tips for protecting your mailbox above. Educate yourself about common internet frauds and scams.

 

Revised: April 05 2011