FBI Targeting One of World's 'Worst' Email Spammers

San Diego man allegedly blasts out a million spam emails in under 15 minutes.

ByABC News
June 9, 2016, 10:38 AM
How long does it take to simply guess someone's password?
How long does it take to simply guess someone's password?
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— -- The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into a California man deemed one of the "Top 10 Worst Spammers" in the world, who can blast out a million unsolicited messages from his San Diego home in less than 15 minutes, according to court documents.

Michael Alexander Persaud has been under federal investigation since at least 2013, and the FBI raided his home in April, the court documents indicate. By the end of April, a federal grand jury was looking at the case.

Persaud, 39, has allegedly become so prolific that Spamhaus, a London-based organization that tracks cyberthreats and works with the FBI, identified him as number 10 on its list of the “Top 10 Worst Spammers” in the world.

Such spammers are often hired by shadowy online retailers to “mass-market unregulated or counterfeit products directly to consumers,” paying the spammers a percentage of any sales their email blitzes generate, according to the court documents.

The FBI has filed these documents with the court, asking that a federal judge let agents search Persaud’s iCloud account, believing the account – linked to two Apple computers and an iPhone seized from his home – contains evidence of “illegal spamming” and wire fraud “to further his spamming activities,” one FBI agent wrote in an affidavit filed in the case.

“Unlike traditional, print unsolicited bulk mail, where the costs of printing and postage are borne by the sender, spam imposes significant costs on its recipients and the computer networks used to transmit spam,” Special Agent Timothy Wilkins, who works with a Cyber Crimes Task Force based in Chicago, wrote in his affidavit.

Not only do host companies “bear the costs of storing and delivering spam,” but spam can cause system outages and force host companies to buy new hardware, software and bandwidth, Wilkins noted. In all, spam can cost a host company $1 million per month, Wilkins added.

When the FBI raided Persaud's home in late April, he told agents he has worked in "internet marketing" for nearly 20 years and has used various host companies' services to conduct that marketing, Wilkins said.

But court documents do not suggest Persaud, who has used several aliases online, acknowledged any criminal wrongdoing.

ABC News has been unable to reach Persaud, and the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago declined to comment for this article.

Nevertheless, in 2001, a 24-year-old Michael Persaud was reportedly arrested by police for using a California company’s system to blast out thousands of spam emails. The case, led by San Diego County authorities, was hailed as one of the first anti-spam prosecutions in the country.

Persaud and an accomplice ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, paying nearly $10,000 in restitution, according to media reports at the time.

Three years earlier, AOL Inc. sued Persaud for a series of “indiscriminate mass mailings and deceptive practices” that “repeatedly bombarded AOL and its members with millions of deceptive, unsolicited, and unwanted [emails] ... in a dubious attempt to lure unwitting individuals into paying for guides to home employment opportunities,” the lawsuit alleged.

The massive spam campaign prompted “thousands” of complaints from users and caused “serious and irreparable harm and injury to AOL by impairing the functioning of AOL’s e-mail system and harming AOL’s business reputation and goodwill among its members,” AOL said in its lawsuit.

A federal judge agreed with AOL, ordering Persaud to pay $490,000 in restitution and more than $54,000 in damages.