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Verizon sues alleged cell phone spammer

In a suit filed in a U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Tuesday, Verizon alleges that nearly 100,000 spam messages have been sent by Florida-based Passport Holidays.

"U just Won," the cell phone text message reads, according to Verizon Wireless. "You just won a cruise to the Bahamas." It then tells the recipient to call a toll-free number, apparently to claim the prize.

But the messages are spam, Verizon says, and it is suing to stop them.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, Verizon alleges that nearly 100,000 copies of the spam messages have been sent by Florida-based Passport Holidays. Verizon is asking the court for an injunction to stop the firm from sending the messages, and is seeking financial compensation for damages. 

The messages began flowing on Oct. 11, the lawsuit claims.  Verizon has received "numerous complaints from customers," according to the lawsuit, and faced spam-related expenses of $150,000.

"This is another effort to protect our customers' privacy," Verizon spokesman Tom Pica said. 

Attempts to obtain a comment from Passport Holidays were unsuccessful.  When called the toll-free number included in the text message, a man who identified himself as Armando Acosta said he refused to answer any questions on the matter.

Cell phone spam is trouble
This is the second time Verizon has filed a lawsuit against alleged cell phone spammers. In July 2004, Verizon sued a Rhode Island firm, alleging it sent out 4.5 million unsolicited mobile phone text message ads to its customers.

Text message spam is particularly troublesome because many cell phone users must pay to receive messages. But while spam fighters have fretted about potential problems for years, so far mobile spam has not amounted to much more than a nuisance in the U.S.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order banning most forms of mobile phone spam, and the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits use of cell phones for unsolicited advertisements.

There are some signs of bigger problems overseas, where legitimate text message advertising is more popular.  Last year, for example, the Reuters news service reported that Japanese firm DoCoMo had cut off 2,173 cell phone lines because of spam abuse.

Messages sent in sequence
Verizon's lawsuit against Passport says about one-quarter of the alleged spam messages were sent to sequential sets of phone numbers within an area code -- 609-000-0001, then 609-000-0002, etc. The text messages were sent fast; up to 200 messages per minutes, Verizon says.  And the winter-wary Northeast was apparently targeted for the tropical cruise ads: about one in 7 were sent to New Jersey area codes.

The "From:" field in the message was blank, leading to a flurry of customer service phone calls. Those cost the Verizon about $6.50 each to field, the lawsuit says, and most customers demand refunds for the cost of receiving the message.

The messages also employed "techniques calculated to camouflage their true identities," in an attempt to prevent Verizon investigators from uncovering the source of the spam, the lawsuit claims.

On Oct. 30, a Verizon employee received one of the messages. When the employee called, she was told Passport Holiday had "used a list that it had of Verizon Wireless and Spring customers to send text messages."

Opt-in defense
Later, after receiving a complaint from Verizon's legal department, Passport sent an e-mail reply including a defense commonly used by those who send unsolicited advertising messages. 

In an e-mail sent on Nov. 3, Passport claimed that every recipient of the text message had "opted in" to receive the marketing pitches. A copy of the e-mail is included in Verizon's lawsuit.

"Every number we contact has opted in on the Internet (most of the time) or has entered their information into a sweepstakes or drawing," the e-mail said.  "Most do not remember the license agreement associated with their entry."  The e-mail was signed "Passport Holidays Legal Department"