Millions of e-mail addresses sold to spammers by AOL worker

Millions of British e-mail addresses have been sold to spammers by an employee of an internet company who now faces up to five years in prison.

Millions of British e-mail addresses have been sold to spammers by an employee of an internet company who now faces up to five years in prison.

Jason Smathers, 24, was fired from his job as a software engineer with the online provider AOL on Wednesday after being charged with conspiracy for selling the list of 92 million AOL "screen names". Each e-mail account can have up to seven such names.

Smathers, who had worked at AOL since 1999, sold them to Sean Dunaway, 21, of Las Vegas, who used the list to target AOL users with unsolicited adverts for an internet gambling operation. He then resold the list to spammers.

The betrayal came to light as US authorities began a long-awaited crackdown on spammers, following a bill passed in December last year which outlawed the practice.

Police followed the trail to Smathers through Dunaway: his name was given up by a spammer who is facing civil charges brought by AOL in March, and hopes to mitigate his own punishment.

Smathers worked at AOL's offices in Dulles, Virginia. He got access to what prosecutors called AOL's "highly secure database" of screen names when he was given another employee's laptop computer to use. That had all the details required to enter and copy the user details, which included e-mail addresses, postal codes and credit card types, prosecutors said. Smathers did not get access to the credit card numbers, which AOL keeps in a separate database.

The revelation is a huge embarassment for AOL, which claims to block two billion spam e-mails every day aimed at its 32 million members worldwide. In an e-mail to employees, the company's chief executive Jonathan Miller said he was "very, very angry about this".

AOL has not yet contacted the customers whose details were stolen, but a spokesman said: "We deeply regret what has taken place and are thoroughly reviewing and strengthening our internal procedures."

Spam has become the bugbear of e-mail use, having grown enormously in the past few years. From being about 2 per cent of all e-mails sent in 2002, it has grown to become at least 60 per cent of all e-mails. Many come from countries such as China which have no direct anti-spamming laws. Most spam advertises products or schemes which are illegal or useless, often backed by organised crime. Yet senders only require a tiny response rate to make money - often more than $100,000 (£60,000) a year.

The amount Dunaway paid Smathers for the original list is not known, but he later paid £60,000 for an updated version. He used it to send adverts and resold it to spammers, charging £1,200 for lists with names beginning with a single letter or £30,000 for the entire list.

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