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Spam network halted by U.S., New Zealand officials

Huge spamming operation flooded inboxes with junk mail touting prescription drugs and herbal products.

Authorities in the U.S. and New Zealand have filed suits to shut down an international spamming operation that sent billions of emails hawking prescription drugs and bogus herbal products.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday that it received more than three million complaints about junk messages connected to the operation, which anti-spam organization Spamhaus described as the No. 1 worst spam gang for most of the past two years.

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The agency filed suit Oct. 6 against two of the alleged spammers, Lance Atkinson, a New Zealand citizen living in Australia, and Jody Smith of Texas plus four companies they control. A U.S. district court on the same day issued a temporary restraining order to shut down the operation.

According to the FTC, the defendants deceptively marketed products through spam, including an herbal male-enhancement pill, prescription drugs that were touted as coming from a U.S.-licensed pharmacy but actually shipped from India, and a weight-loss pill. They recruited spammers around the world to send billions of bogus emails that directed consumers to websites operated by an affiliate program called "Affking," the FTC said. The operation involved participants in Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Russia, Canada, and the U.S.

The FTC said that security researchers believe at one time nearly one-third of the world's spam came from a spam-spewing botnet that promoted the defendants' websites.

In New Zealand, the Department of Internal Affairs filed suit in Christchurch alleging that Atkinson and his brother, Shane, worked with a third defendant, Roland Smits, to send more than two million emails to New Zealand addresses between September and December of 2007. The spamming operation earned the trio sales commissions of more than $2 million, the department said.

The suits follow a raid last December at four locations in Christchurch. Just before the raid, Shane Atkinson told his brother to stop spamming after being contacted by BBC reporters investigating their activities, according to the Department of Internal Affairs. The department credited the FTC with helping its investigation.

In June 2005, the FTC won a $2.2 million judgment against Lance Atkinson and another business partner for running a similar spam program that hawked herbal products.

In a blog posting Tuesday, Quentin Jenkins of Spamhaus congratulated the FTC and New Zealand on their "fine choice of spammers for legal action." Referring to the spam operation as the HerbalKing spam gang, Jenkins said the defendants were well known to Spamhaus.

In an update Wednesday, Spamhaus said it continues to see a flood of HerbalKing spam, which it attributed to the automated nature of botnet spam systems and the disregard spammers and those they work with have for the law.

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