Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R) this week launched a computer crimes strike force to investigate and prosecute criminals operating in cyberspace, a step aimed at safeguarding Virginia's large and growing information technology industry.

The unit, which will be coordinated from the criminal division of Earley's office, will focus on crimes such as consumer fraud and the distribution of child pornography on the Internet. Officials said the task force will also help enforce Internet-related legislation, such as the ban on unsolicited bulk e-mail known as "spam" passed earlier this year by the Virginia General Assembly.

"We are committed to ensuring [that] Virgina's citizens and businesses can travel the information superhighway without harassment, danger or invasion of their privacy," Earley said in a statement. "Virginians should be free to engage in Internet commerce and communication without being hampered by those who would abuse or exploit it."

The task force grew out of the commission on information technology appointed last year by Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who has sought to create Internet policies that would promote growth for the industry and punish those who abuse it.

On July 1, new legislation created a $500 civil penalty for anyone sending "spam," and it increased penalties for those who spread computer viruses.

The General Assembly also authorized $150,000 to finance Earley's computer crimes unit. The idea, officials said, is to provide technological know-how and other help to local authorities to combat Internet-related crimes.

Officials said the task force will rely on help from the Virginia State Police and its computer crimes experts to conduct criminal investigations. Lawyers from the attorney general's office will be involved in the prosecution of alleged offenders.

Fred Williamson, Virginia's assistant secretary of technology, said it was important to state leaders to create a model of laws and regulations to govern the Internet, and a way to enforce the rules.

"The problem is that every commonwealth's attorney's office can't afford the resources necessary . . . to handle all these issues in each of our counties, especially the smaller ones," Williamson said. "We're becoming an information economy and an information society, and so I think attorney general Earley thought it was appropriate to have some specialized expertise that can respond to that environment."

Lt. Col. Darrel E. Stilwell, director of the Virginia State Police bureau of criminal investigation, said the task force will open the door to more comprehensive investigations and prosecutions. The state police have seven agents heavily trained in the investigation of computer-related crimes.

"With all the expertise [the attorney general's office] can provide, and with what we provide, we should be able to handle any type of computer-related crime that comes to our attention," Stilwell said.