Two North Carolina residents yesterday became the first people in the nation to be convicted on felony spamming charges after a Loudoun County jury found that they flooded tens of thousands of America Online e-mail accounts with unsolicited e-mail, prosecutors said.
Jeremy Jaynes, 30, and his sister Jessica DeGroot, 28, both of the Raleigh area, were found guilty of three felony charges each for using phony Internet addresses to send large volumes of e-mail ads through an AOL server in Loudoun.
The jury recommended that Jaynes spend nine years in prison and that DeGroot pay $7,500 in fines for violating Virginia's anti-spam law. A third defendant, Richard Rutkowski, 30, also of the Raleigh area, was acquitted of three felony counts.
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, whose office prosecuted the case, called the convictions a victory in the fight against spam, which, according to some experts, accounts for more than 70 percent of all e-mails and costs businesses $10 billion a year to filter or block.
"This is a major victory for Virginians and all Americans," Kilgore said. "Spam is a nuisance to millions of Americans, but it is also a major problem for businesses large and small because the thousands of unwanted e-mails create havoc as they attempt to conduct commerce."
Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for AOL, said the company hoped that yesterday's verdict would give other spammers pause.
During the trial, prosecutors depicted Jaynes as the leader of a spam operation run out of his home. Yesterday, David A. Oblon, Jaynes's lawyer, maintained that the state had not proved that Jaynes sent e-mails to people who did not ask for them.
"The jury found evidence that just wasn't there," Oblon said. "And the amount of the sentence is just jaw-dropping. People who commit robbery don't get nine years. This is not a crime of violence."
Experts said yesterday that the convictions could embolden and guide other prosecutors as they attempt to stop spammers, who have generally faced civil lawsuits brought by Internet service providers. But they said it will take many convictions and more sophisticated technology to stop spam.
"We only need a few thousand more cases like this and we'll have a real dent in the spam problem," said Ray Everett-Church, general counsel for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. "It's a terrific challenge and all indications are that for every spammer you take off the streets there's at least one if not more that come up to take their place."
During five days of testimony, prosecutors argued that the defendants used fake Internet addresses to send more than 10,000 spam e-mails to AOL subscribers on three days in July 2003 -- a volume that made the crime a felony. The ads, they said, pitched low-priced stock pickers, a software product and an offer to work from home as a "FedEx refund processor."
Prosecutors said investigators who searched Jaynes's home found computer disks containing millions of AOL e-mail addresses and computer equipment that had been used to attempt to send more than 50,000 e-mails to AOL subscribers.
DeGroot and Rutkowski supported and profited from the spamming business, prosecutors said. Sentencing for Jaynes and DeGroot has been set for Feb. 3.
Defense lawyers said the state's case was built on circumstantial evidence that did not prove the defendants worked together or that they sent unsolicited e-mails. Prosecutors did not ask any AOL customers to testify that they had received spam, the defense lawyers said.
When he was charged last December, Jaynes -- under the name Gaven Stubberfield -- was No. 8 on a list of the world's top 10 spammers, according to Spamhaus.org, an anti-spam tracking organization that published the list.