Seller of AOL List Gets Prison

Times Staff Writer

A former America Online Inc. engineer who sold 92 million stolen e-mail addresses to an alleged spammer was sentenced Wednesday to 15 months in prison, but spam fighters said the punishment was too lenient to stem the flow of junk messages.

Jason Smathers, 25, pleaded guilty in February to hacking AOL’s customer database and selling the e-mail addresses of customers for $28,000. His case was among the first prosecuted under the federal anti-spam laws that took effect last year.

“The case is significant because it demonstrates the commitment of the prosecutors to follow through” to crack down on spam, said Anne Mitchell, president for the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy. “But the actual length of the sentence is not all that significant. It probably will not deter spammers at all.”

Smathers had faced up to five years in prison. He was charged in 2004 with one count of conspiracy to traffic stolen property and one count of violating the federal Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, or the Can-Spam Act.


A plea agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan called for an 18-month minimum prison term. But U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein reduced the sentence, noting that Smathers was contrite and had cooperated with prosecutors.

“I know I’ve done something very wrong,” Smathers told the judge at his sentencing.

Smathers did not return calls Wednesday to his home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said the Dulles, Va.-based company “is pleased that this matter has come to an appropriate resolution.”


Spam has emerged as the scourge of the online age. Last year, spam made up 68% of all e-mail, up from 55% in 2003, according to IronPort Systems Inc., a San Bruno, Calif., maker of anti-spam software. This year, the figure is expected to hit 72%.

Harsher sentences have been meted out for spamming. In April, Jeremy Jaynes of Raleigh, N.C., was sentenced to nine years in prison for sending out as many as 10 million unsolicited e-mails a day.

Smathers’ case was different because he did not send spam himself but instead sold the list to someone who allegedly did.

Smathers said he assembled a list of screen names, ZIP codes and telephone numbers and then sold the list to Sean Dunaway, a Las Vegas e-mail marketer. Dunaway was charged in April with using the e-mails to promote his online gambling business. Prosecutors also allege Dunaway sold the list to other e-mail marketers.


Dunaway pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Mitchell and other anti-spam advocates said Smathers’ sentence was not likely to thwart spammers because it was much cheaper and easier to write programs that automatically troll the Internet for addresses.

“Spammers don’t have any trouble getting e-mail addresses,” said John Mozena, co-founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. “So this case isn’t likely to have an effect on the volume of spam out there.”

Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, the world’s largest Internet service provider, with 27 million subscribers, said it had seen a decline in the amount of spam its members receive since it launched an offensive against unsolicited e-mails in 2003. The company now blocks 1.4 billion pieces of spam a day, down from 2.4 billion in the fall of 2003.


But the battle is far from won.

“The list that Smathers stole had 92 million e-mail addresses, and it’s still out there,” Mitchell said. “Spammers are still using it.”

Associated Press was used in compiling this report.