Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

Nearly everyone who uses email has received unsolicited commercial messages at one time or another. These emails, 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.

The Attorney General’s Office receives a large volume of consumer complaints about spam. Over the years, the percentage of email messages that is spam has exceeded 50 percent.  This is an alarming statistic because spam can lead to identity theft and fraud. 

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 email 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 enforces the federal CAN Spam Act.

While many unsolicited email 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. Here are ways to protect your email address to help avoid spam.

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 email, they are not illegal and are not covered by Washington's anti-spam law. There are ways you can eliminate unwanted pop-up ads; for example, you can use your Internet browser controls to block them.