War-Driving Spammer Sentenced, Gets Probation

Anne Winter
MARINA DEL REY, Calif. — A man plead guilty to "war driving," seeking unprotected wireless connections to send spam, and was sentenced to three years probation and six months home detention. He had faced up to three years in prison.

Nicholas Tombros admitted to driving around Venice, Calif., seeking unlocked wireless access points and using them to send spam emails advertising adult websites. This is known as "war spamming."

He was arrested in 2004 and plead guilty to one count of unauthorized access to a computer for the purposes of sending mass email blasts charges and faced up to three years in prison. Instead, he received probation and a $10,000 fine.

The U.S. Attorney's Office reported that this arrest was the first made under the CAN-SPAM act of 2003, but took four years to sentence the man, which some argue sends a weak message to other spammers.

"If these guys are violating the law and found guilty, they should be sentenced to the maximum," T3 Report founder Brandon Shalton told XBIZ. "Otherwise, the protection for consumers that the law was supposed to cover renders the law useless and without any deterrence or recourse to the spammer's actions."

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for antispam software company Sophos, said it's a mystery why it took so long for Tombros to be sentenced and why the sentence was so light compared to other convicted spammers.

"Sentencing needs to happen much faster if a strong message is going to be sent out to other spammers that their criminal activities are unacceptable," Cluley said.

Shalton said it's possible that Tombros could face future legal problems from cable Internet service providers.

"The angle might be that cable companies could sue the guy for 'trespassing' or theft type issues and attack these kind of spammers from a civil lawsuit point of view, rather than waiting for the legal system to render criminal charges," Shalton said.

Either way, Shalton said, spammers will send fraudulent emails because they don't believe they'll ever be caught. Cases like this one, he said, give those the further confidence to continue their actions.

"Having just this one case won't be the deterrence," Shalton said. "There would need to be more prosecutions where then only the hardcore spammers would [continue]. And those would be running through multiple layers of servers and proxies, so it might knock out the bottom 90 percent [of spammers]."

So-called "spam king" Robert Alan Soloway was indicted at the end of May with 35 counts of spam-related charges, including money laundering, mail fraud and email fraud. If convicted, he could face a maximum jail sentence of 75 years.