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Nearly everyone who uses e-mail has received unsolicited commercial messages at one time or another. These e-mails, often referred to as "spam," are an irritating fact of life for people who use the Internet to communicate with friends, do research, or purchase goods and services on line.

In Washington State, the number one consumer complaint reported over the last 2 years is spam. The Federal Trade Commission, the agency with jurisdiction to receive and investigate spam email complaints, reports receiving over 130,000 complaints a day. Almost 45 percent of all email is now spam and that number is growing each year. Nearly three trillion spam messages are sent each year — 13 times the total snail mail delivered by the U.S. Postal service. The average wired American is hit with nearly 2,200 spam messages annually — this after most ISPs have filtered 80-90 percent of the junk messages. Some reports indicate that these numbers could increase by five times in the near future. Junk email is an issue not only reserved for individuals — it is estimated that spam costs legitimate businesses $9 billion dollars a year.

Spam can be divided into two categories — legal and illegal.

A Washington law passed in 1998 and upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2001 makes it illegal to send unsolicited commercial e-mail that has been addressed in a false or misleading way. This type of spam is especially troubling because it can cheat consumers out of their money, undermine consumer confidence in online commerce and harm legitimate Internet marketers. One example of illegal spam, sometimes referred to as "Joe job" spam, purports to come from reputable business firms and is intended to harass those firms or to elicit personal information from recipients.

In 2003, the federal government also passed an anti-spam law, called the CAN Spam Act. Among other regulations, the CAN Spam Act requires that unsolicited commercial email be clearly identified as such and that consumers be able to opt-out of receiving more emails. The Federal Trade Commission is also charged with investigating the viability of a do-not-spam registry, similar to the do-not-call registry already in place.

While many unsolicited e-mail messages are annoying, only some fall into the illegal category. But even if a message does not violate federal or state anti-spam laws, it should still be viewed with caution. Messages may contain advertisements for pornography, get-rich-quick schemes and other ploys that violate state law, are offensive or inappropriate for viewing by children. Clicking on links contained in spam messages can also expose Internet users to computer viruses.

Pop-Up Advertising

Another increasingly annoying problem for many Internet users is unsolicited pop-up advertising that appears on computer screens while surfing the net. Although pop up ads can be as annoying as unsolicited e-mail, they are not illegal and are not covered by Washington's anti-spam law. However, there are steps you can take to eliminate unwanted pop up ads.

In 2003, the law outlining jurisdiction for Washington district courts was amended to specifically allow these courts to hear spam cases.

The links on above and to the left of this page will take you to more detailed information about unsolicited commercial e-mail, Washington's law, and steps you can take to reduce the amount of spam—legal and illegal—in your computer mailbox.

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