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Storm of anti-Obama text messages linked to Virginia firm

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A controversial Virginia marketing and polling firm appears to have used a legal loophole to bombard scores of Americans with unsolicited text messages berating President Barack Obama less than a week before Election Day.

More than a dozen different messages landed on the screens of phone users late on Tuesday, originating from mysterious websites instead of phone numbers. They attacked Obama and Democrats on a variety of issues such as abortion, foreign policy, same-sex marriage and taxation.

The domain names of those websites had been registered with GoDaddy.com through a firm that masks original owners.

On Wednesday, Reuters compiled a list of at least nine websites gathered from reporters who received the political text messages. A review of websites that track domain name registrations revealed that three of the nine websites that sent the messages were registered by Jason Flanary. Those sites had been suspended for spam and abuse.

An email for Jason Flanary indicated he works for ccAdvertising, a division of FreeEats.com Inc. Neither Flanary or the firm returned requests for comment.

CcAdvertising's website says: "All ccAdvertising services are compliant with all Do Not Call regulations and exceptions."

Based in Centreville, Virginia, ccAdvertising is a firm that has represented Republican candidates. It has been fined, sued and pursued for aggressive political pushes that state authorities and private parties have argued violate laws against robo-calls and other types of automated phone contact.

It remains unclear who may have paid for the latest wave of messages and how many people received them.

"If re-elected, Obama will use taxpayer money to fund abortion. Don't let this happen," read one of the messages, which were sent out on Tuesday. "Medicare goes bankrupt in 4000 days while Obama plays politics with senior health," read another.

In 2011, Flanary unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for state Senate in Virginia, and his company was sued in Fairfax County, for allegedly unleashing thousands of spam texts in the last days of campaigning.

Federal law generally prohibits sending text messages to phone users who did not give prior consent, but does not specifically address non-commercial messages that originate as email, which includes political ones.

That is how ccAdvertising appears to get around the law: Each phone number by default has an attached email address. The spammer can spray emails to those addresses through trial and error. That way the message goes through as an email but appears to the receiver as a text message and, in fact, can cost consumers money if they do not have unlimited data plans.

ccAdvertising and its work are used as an example in a petition to the Federal Communications Commission to specify a ban on spam email-to-text messages, filed earlier this year by Democratic firm Revolution Messaging.

"The FCC makes exemptions for people to be able to send email for political causes, but let's be honest, just because you're adding an email extension and using an email gateway, you still have to find a phone number," said Scott Goodstein, who runs Revolution Messaging.

Goodstein believes that ccAdvertising has been behind political text spam waves in several states this year.

ccAdvertising lists a variety of political and corporate clients on its website, including Americans for Tax Reform, a non-profit run by anti-tax Republican Grover Norquist.

"Americans for Tax Reform has never done this type of unsolicited text messaging with ccAdvertising or any other vendor, and we never will," said spokesman John Kartch, adding that the group has not done business with ccAdvertising "for more than a year" and, in fact, actively opposed Flanary in his state Senate bid.

The FCC and major phone carriers including Verizon and T-Mobile have encouraged users to report spam messages, which can be done by forwarding them to a short phone number 7726 (spells "SPAM").

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cohen, Sinead Carew, David Ingram and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Stacey Joyce)

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