During 2000, the FTC sent warning letters about a particular illegal e-mail chain letter to 1,000 spammers. Chain letters that promise money or other value to the recipient in exchange for a small payment violate US federal law, said Eileen Harrington, the FTC's associate director for marketing practices.
In 2001, the agency searched its own junk e-mail database, comprising over 8 million messages forwarded by consumers, and discovered that more than 2,000 people were still involved in the chain mail scam.
Undercover FTC workers sent a $5 fee to the spammers who had been warned in 2000 and their responses proved that they were still involved in the scam.
The FTC announced on 12 February that it had reached settlements with seven defendants caught in the sting.
A further 2,000 warning letters will be sent this week to individuals still involved in the scam, Harrington said.
"Almost everyone with an e-mail account gets spam. It's intrusive, unwelcoming, and annoying," said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris. "Deceptive junk e-mail is also illegal. We want to send a message today; we're going after deceptive spam and the people who send it. We want it off the Net."
The agency also announced it will work with local ISP associations to educate the public about e-mail chain letter schemes.
"The fact about chain letters is that many people think because they are disseminated on the Internet a different law applies," Harrington said.
The agency took pains to distinguish between fraudulent e-mail and spam that is simply annoying. Fraudulent e-mail includes chain letters that promise riches, e-mail that makes false product claims and messages that include an opt-out option that is not heeded by the sender.
"There are larger bulk e-mail issues, and we are talking with parties to see if there are some efficient ways to control the volume," she said.