- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Virginia yesterday became the first state to pass legislation allowing prosecutors to bring criminal charges against senders of spam.
   Gov. Mark Warner signed two antispam bills at the Sterling, Va., headquarters of America Online, the world’s largest Internet service provider. AOL has about 27 million subscribers, processing billions of e-mails each day, much of unsolicited advertisements.
   “If there is any place we need this law, it’s right here in Virginia,” the Democratic governor said.
   Under the laws, which go into effect July 1, Virginia law enforcement officials can bring felony charges against anyone in the state who sends spam. Punishment can include as much as five years in jail and the forfeiture of assets.
   Of the 29 states with antispam laws, Virginia’s are the first to allow prosecutors to seek jail time and forfeiture of property for extreme offenders. Maryland antispam legislation, which went into effect in October, allows up to $500 to be awarded to the spam victim. The District has no antispam law.
   Spam is considered to be any unsolicited e-mail, often sent to many different addresses at random. It is often characterized by advertisements for financial products or services, contests or pornography.
   Between 30 percent and 45 percent of all e-mail sent is spam, and the volume will double in the next six months, industry analysts said. U.S. businesses lost $10 billion last year as a result of spam, Mr. Warner’s office said.
   “Spam puts limits on the power of technology to reach its potential,” said Mr. Warner, a former venture capitalist who invested millions of dollars in the wireless and Internet industries, and co-founded Nextel Communications. “A threat of a fine is often not enough to stop [spammers] who work in what is a very, very lucrative business.”
   Officials from AOL, Microsoft Corp. and Verizon Inc. attended the bill-signing ceremony yesterday and said they supported the laws.
   Ted Leonsis, AOL vice chairman and president of AOL’s Core Services unit, referred to spam as the “number one quality of life issue we face today.” He said that using its own company controls, AOL blocks 780 million spam e-mails per day.
   The new law is directed at commercial spam, with provisions that kick in when someone sends at least 10,000 copies of a message in a single day or makes at least $1,000 from one such transmission.
   Spam victims can contact their Internet service providers, who will contact the Virginia attorney general.
   The Federal Trade Commission will begin a three-day public forum today to discuss spam at its headquarters in the District. The FTC maintains a database of spam, to which e-mail users contribute an average of 130,000 e-mails per day. The commission received 11.15 million messages from people victimized by spam during the last six months of 2002.
   AOL announced earlier this week a partnership with Microsoft and Yahoo Inc. to discuss potential industry standards that would curb the ability to send bulk e-mail. The companies said they would explore the possibility of giving e-mails a digital footprint, making it easier to find the sender. Together, the three companies host more than 200 million e-mail accounts.
   The most recent version of AOL includes a button allowing users to immediately report spam, allowing the company to fine-tune its antispam filters.
   On April 15, AOL filed five separate lawsuits against spammers in federal court. The company has filed more than 100 lawsuits using Virginia’s current antispam laws, which call for fines up to $10 per e-mail, or a maximum of $25,000 per day, and other civil penalties.
   The bill-signing comes on the same day the FTC issued a report on spam, indicating that as much as two-thirds of spam contains false or misleading information. The “from” or “subject” lines, also known as headers, were the most common place for false information, the FTC said.
   Also, about 40 percent of all pornographic e-mails had false headers that could cause a person to open them without knowing they contained lewd images.
   To avoid being victimized by spam, Internet analysts recommend users share their e-mail address with as few people as necessary, and not posting the address on the Internet.
   Also, antispam advocates suggest ignoring any e-mail from a suspicious party. Opening or replying to the e-mail indicates to the sender that the e-mail address is active and able to receive more spam.
    Using an uncommon or unusual e-mail address will help protect against spam, too, because it is less likely to be selected by spam programs that select e-mail addresses at random.
   To stop spammers, the FTC recommends sending the mail to the FTC database. Internet analysts also recommend sending complaints to the spammers’ Internet service provider.
   Mr. Warner said he hoped Virginia’s new law would lead to stronger and more widespread antispam legislation at the state and federal levels.
   “It’s our hope that states will follow,” Mr. Warner said. “It’s our hope that Congress will stop holding hearings on this issue, as they’ve done for the last five years, and actually pass some legislation.”
   The Can-Spam Act of 2003, sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, was submitted to the Senate April 10, and was referred to the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The bill calls for criminal penalties for submitting bulk e-mail with fraudulent or misleading information in the header.

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