From a nondescript house in a neighboring state, Jeremy Jaynes and his sister raked in more than $24 million from fake Internet offers of penny-stock picker schemes, nonexistent FedEx refunds, cheap drugs and pornography.
They did it by flooding the inboxes of millions of Internet users with junk e-mails known as spam. Indeed, Jaynes was ranked among the top 10 spammers in the world.
But last week in this picturesque town that was founded in 1758, Jaynes’ schemes fell victim to what government officials and anti-spam groups hope will become an increasingly effective weapon against Internet fraud: hefty doses of time behind bars.
Using a new state anti-spam law that is considered the toughest in the nation, a Virginia jury convicted North Carolina residents Jaynes and Jessica DeGroot of sending untraceable junk e-mails to millions of customers of America Online, which is based in Dulles, Va.
It was the first conviction under the law, the first in the nation to make it a felony to send large numbers of fraudulent, unsolicited e-mail messages.
In a state that is home to some of the nations’ largest Internet service providers, the jury’s decision was a milestone in another way: It made it likely that Jaynes would serve substantial prison time. The trial judge will not impose sentence until February, but the jury recommended nine years.
DeGroot, 28, who was found to have played only a supporting role in her brother’s activities, was fined $7,500. A third defendant was acquitted. Jaynes’ lawyer is contesting the prosecutions.
Although building legal cases against spammers and bringing them to court can be difficult given the global nature of the Internet, state officials and anti-spam advocates hoped this case and others in the works would reverberate beyond the mid-Atlantic region -- much the way high-profile legal action has put a crimp in the illegal downloading of music from the Internet.
“These convictions and the prison sentence for kingpin spammer Jaynes send a resounding message from Virginia to spammers around the world,” said Richard Campbell, deputy attorney general for the commonwealth. “If you defraud individuals and encumber ISPs with illegal spam, there are consequences.”
Spam has confounded government and private sector officials for years. Despite hundreds of civil lawsuits, and a bundle of federal and state laws, the unsolicited e-mails now account for 70% of all e-mail traffic, according to anti-spam organizations.
It’s a lucrative business for spammers. Jaynes was accused of forging Internet addresses and using confidential e-mail directories stolen from Internet providers like AOL to peddle his usually phony products. In one month alone, he received 10,000 credit card orders for $39.95 each, according to prosecutors.
Anti-spam organizations and law enforcement officials see prosecutions as key in the fight, along with software development and consumer education.
As a high-tech hub that sees nearly three-fourths of Internet traffic flow through its borders, Virginia is poised to take on more cases.
“Virginia has the potential of setting the pace of how to set penalties that may actually have an effect in dissuading the behavior,” said Ray Everett-Church, who works with the anti-spam group Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. “But the reality is there is no one solution to spam, and it’s going to require a mixture of techniques and approaches to really bring some change to the environment.”
Some states are beginning to nab spammers through regular fraud or identity-theft statues. Officials seized $50 million in assets from Arizona spammers last year. And in May in New York, “Buffalo Spammer” Howard Carmack was convicted and sentenced to as many as seven years in prison.
Now other states, including Michigan and Maryland, have made unsolicited spam a felony. Though these states could use older statutes, officials say having a specific spam law makes prosecution easier and sends a clearer message.
Criminal prosecution is also making its way to the federal level. A new federal statute, which took effect in January, was modeled after Virginia’s law. It makes it illegal to send unsolicited bulk e-mails that are not accurately labeled and do not have real return addresses.
In September, federal officials in California obtained the first conviction under the new Can Spam Act, prosecuting 28-year-old Nicholas Tombros, who drove around a Venice Beach community with a laptop computer looking for unprotected wireless Internet access points from which to send spam.
Federal officials said a number of other cases are pending.
But anti-spam advocates cautioned that prosecutions would have a deterrent effect only if enforcement was broad and persistent.
And it’s unclear whether federal and state authorities will continue to step up enforcement. State budgets are thin. Tracking down spammers is tedious. And spammers continue to frustrate authorities with bolder methods such as sending spam through unsuspecting private computer users.