AOL Employee Found Guilty, Send to Prison in Spam Case

By Christine Kearney

An America Online employee was sentenced to 15 months in prison on Wednesday for stealing 92 million e-mail screen names from the Internet company and selling them to a spammer.

Jason Smathers, 25, pleaded guilty in February in federal court in Manhattan to charges including conspiracy and interstate trafficking of stolen property. He was paid $28,000 by an Internet marketer for the names, which were taken from AOL's database of 30 million subscribers at the time.

Other defendants in spam cases have received tougher sentences. Last year, a New York state man known as the "Buffalo Spammer" was sentenced to 3-1/2 to 7 years in prison for violating state forgery and identity-theft laws.

Smathers has been cooperating with the government and appeared sorrowful in court on Wednesday, surrounded by family members. He faced up to 24 months in prison under federal guidelines.

"I know I have done something very wrong," he told U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein.

Prosecutors said AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., suffered an estimated loss of $300,000 from employee time spent dealing with the issue, as well as hardware and software expenses.

Hellerstein said that while AOL's loss estimate was hard to prove, the offense was still serious.

"People use e-mail as a primary measure of communication these days," he said. "Companies need to preserve the integrity of the information they have."

In stealing the e-mail names of AOL customers, Smathers created "the sale of a line of products customers had no need for," the judge said.

In a letter to the judge, Smathers pleaded for leniency. He described himself as "an outlaw" in the "new frontier" of cyberspace.

Prosecutor David Siegal said he found Smathers' letter "moving," but told the judge that "the Internet is not lawless." He estimated that AOL suffered a loss of 10 cents for every 1,000 spam e-mails sent to subscribers.

The judge did not impose a fine. He gave AOL 10 days to prove its financial loss before deciding on restitution, but suggested a figure of $84,000.

Smathers will surrender to a United States Marshall in Pensacola, Florida on September 19.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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