The Washington state attorney general's office has sued a New York company and individuals in New York, New Hampshire, Oregon and India under state and federal anti-spam and spyware laws, saying they induced computer users to download software that weakened their computers' security.
The lead defendant in the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, is Secure Computer LLC of White Plains, N.Y. The company's president, Paul E. Burke, who lives in the Bronx, and Gary T. Preston, of Jamaica, N.Y., have made more than $100,000 since summer 2004 selling software known as "spyware cleaner" over the Internet — software they advertised using mass, misleading e-mails and pop-ups, the lawsuit said.
State and federal officials have been trying to combat the spread of spyware, unwanted programs that sneak onto computers, can bombard users with pop-up ads and drain processing power to the point of rendering computers unusable.
State Attorney General Rob McKenna said Tuesday night that this is the first lawsuit filed under Washington state's new anti-spyware act, which the Legislature passed last year, and one of the first spyware lawsuits in the country.
"In general, we've made more progress on spam than we have on spyware," McKenna said. "Spyware in all its forms is a faster-growing threat than viruses."
Some of the spam and pop-up ads sent on behalf of Secure Computer imitated Microsoft Corp. messages and products, the lawsuit said. Microsoft has pursued more than 100 anti-spam lawsuits, winning more than $800 million from spammers. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
Besides Burke and Preston, named in the lawsuit are Burke's wife, Wendy; Seth T. Traub of Portsmouth, N.H.; Zhijian Chen of Portland, Ore.; and Manoj Kumar of Maharashtra, India. They are accused of sending out e-mails and advertisements on Secure Computer's behalf in exchange for a 75 percent commission on each $49.95 software sale.
Phone messages left for Burke on his home answering machine and with someone who answered his work cell phone claiming to be a relative were not immediately returned. Phone numbers for the other defendants could not immediately be found, and it was not clear whether they had lawyers.
Many of the advertisements purported to be from Microsoft and flashed warnings that spyware or viruses had been discovered on a user's computer.
"Deceived into believing that dangerous spyware is on their computer and there is no time to waste, the user is induced to purchase Spyware Cleaner," the lawsuit said.
What's more, the software doesn't even work, it said.
McKenna said that downloading Secure Computer's spyware software actually left computers more vulnerable to spyware.
The lawsuit cites several state and federal laws, from the state consumer protection laws to the federal CAN-SPAM law, short for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act. The state could possibly be entitled to millions of dollars in damages.