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The Purple Cow: Sue Spammers
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 Dec 2002
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I want you to sue spammers.

Spam sucks. It takes up disk space, bandwidth, and my time. It also offends me, offers me stuff I don't want or can't use, and tells me I opted-in when I surely did not.

Update (April 7, 2009): $623.54 Check from PrintPal!

So I've decided that, in spite of the fact that there are thousands of great free open source anti-spam applications out there, it is time to start using the laws that have been created in those few fortunate states to help stop unsolicited bulk email. One person CAN make a difference, but a whole lot of people can make a difference too, and a much more profound one in this case.

I want to teach you how to sue spammers. It's easy, and you will help send a financial and legal message to people who continue to send spam. You can disrupt their business, cause them to pay you a pittance for your lost time and great aggravation, and make them realize that you don't want to be on their so-called opt-in list. True, you have the potential to get back the money that they continually cause your ISP (and thus you) to spend without your consent, permission or knowledge. True, if you can't collect, you'll lose some money by filing the suit. But I want to teach you this not for your own financial gain, but to rid the Internet of unsolicited commercial email.

A good friend told me, and I hope to know this personally soon, that he's collected $5,000+ from lawsuits filed in small claims court in Virginia against spammers. I personally have won a judgment against a spammer in another state, and hope to collect on it soon. It took me a little over two hours of time to file the case and receive my judgment. 15 minutes filing paperwork, 37 minutes in court, 15 minutes in phone calls and faxes attempting to settle out of court, and the rest of the time in my car between the courthouse. If I can't collect on my judgment, I'll be out $43. But if I do, I'll have earned $290 an hour (if you don't consider the cost of the spam in the first place, which you'll already have spent, so you can't get it back anyway). Not bad to defeat spam.

Can you too sue spammers in your state and win? Maybe. Read the laws in your own state. You definitely can in Virginia.

Need a settlement letter?

The Teaching Begins

  1. Determine if you have Spam
  2. This seems pretty easy, but there are companies that legitimately send commercial email and will take you off their lists if you so request. Examples: Any airline (US Air, Northwest); IBM, Yahoo!, AOL, Dell, or most any Fortune 500 company you can think of; etc. Make sure you didn't accidentally sign up for a service that these companies provide at your request. They may have subscribed you at a registration, maybe a little subverted like, but since they want your business they won't usually keep you on an email list you don't want to be on. This is a guideline, though, not a hard and fast rule. Use your own judgment. Or if you are stupid and your judgment is bad, you probably shouldn't be in court to begin with.
  3. Determine who benefits from the Spam
  4. Usually this is the advertiser. If they are offering 80% off printer cartridges and sending you to printpal.com, Printpal is who you want to sue. If the sender is agreatofferforyou.com, this is the wrong company to sue. Why? If all consumers died (or nudity became the only fashion), The Gap would go out of business. If Printpal gets sued by 130 different people, Printpal (who offers a legitimate and seemingly valuable service) will stop hiring agreatofferforyou.com and similar spamming companies, and thus they will go out of business. So sue the company or individual that is advertised or promoted.
  5. Research the Spammer
  6. The easiest way to do this is using "whois." Do a google search if you don't know what it is. Use the address, phone number, email address and company or individual name as your first point of reference. If it is a company, call the State Corporation Commission for the state the company is located. Find what the "Registered Agent" name and address is. This is the address that all communication to the company on official business must be sent (ie the summons to court). You'll NEED this. If it is an individual, make sure they reside at the address labeled. If not, do a little investigative work. Find a number or email on the site. Contact them and tell them you'd like to send them a letter about how happy you are with their service, or some story that is convincing. You should be able to get their current mailing address. Or try Yahoo! People. Or 411 will work sometimes.
  7. Contact the Spammer to try and Settle
  8. Most lawsuits get settled out of court. This should be no different. Write a nice, forward letter stating that you have received unsolicited email in violation of your states laws and you want them to settle with you for $580 (or whatever you think). Most likely they won't settle, but it is worth a shot avoiding the court system. I'll post my settlement request letter sometime. Email me until I do.
  9. File the case in Small Claims or General District Court
  10. You've tried to settle, and now it's time to use the courts for what they were intended -- to settle disputes. In VA, small claims court is good for up to $2,000, and general district court for anything above that. The people at the courthouse have been extremely friendly and fairly helpful; hopefully you'll find the same. Do your research though -- I learned almost everything I needed to know about the courthouse process on the courthouse website. It will save you headaches if the people at the courthouse are less than helpful. If the spammer is outside of your state, you'll need to know the Registered Agent address and the process for notification of defendants outside of your state. Each state will most likely be different! You'll also need your checkbook and about $40 or so to your name. In VA you have to write two checks -- one for the court fee, and another for the out-of-state notification of summons. At the end of this process you should have a court date set, probably about 4-6 weeks from the day you file.
  11. Your day in Court
  12. Be PREPARED! Never, ever, ever piss of a judge by being unprepared. Wear a suit or at least dress up a lot nicer than you normally do. Look like you are a professional of some sort. If you wear jeans and a ZZ Top t-shirt, you may still win, but you'll have a strike against you. NO HATS (Sorry bald guys). Print out headers and body of every spam you received from the spammer. Yes, I know this may take a ream of paper. Do it. Use both sides if you must, or find out if your court system accepts evidence in electronic format. Some do, most probably won't. Make sure that you cite the laws you are suing under by number/name/etc. Explain how every one of the pieces of evidence (the spam messages) violates the law. They spammer may show up. You should have a reasoned argument prepared, and stick to the facts. Don't conjecture on what the spammer may or may not have known. Be honest, fair, prudent, and respectful. You may hate spam, but you have to respect every person in that courtroom.

    Most likely, at this point, you've won.

  13. You've got your Judgment -- Now what?
  14. In VA, you have to wait 10 days to allow the defendant to appeal. After that they send you a certified judgment in the mail. This is your gold. You need this to disrupt the spammers business and collect your judgment. Use Yahoo! Yellow Pages with the company's or individual's address and search for banks. Call each bank, asking if the spammer has an account there (or just ask if there is sufficient funds in the spammers account -- if they can't find it, move on). Once you find their bank, find out if the bank will attach an out of state judgment to their assets/account. If so, fax/mail them a CERTIFIED COPY of the judgment. You may need to get that from the court. The bank SHOULD freeze their account until they pay you. That means they can't touch their bank account until they pay you, which means you've disrupted their business and told them in a legal way to not send you spam. Get 10 of your friends to do the same and man, they should theoretically stop spamming quick.
  15. I can't get the Judgment
  16. Find a debt collection company. I'm not sure exactly how they work, but they may BUY your judgment from you for 50% (50 cents on the dollar) of the value of the judgment. Cash in your pocket (half, but hey), and THEY will hassle the spammer until they get their money. You've still disrupted their business, and taken their money.
  17. I'm scared
  18. Don't do it then. But it's really easy, and very effective, especially if people can do this in bulk. Here's the step-by-step proceedings of my first case. Just fill in the blanks and repeat. It's really easy.

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