Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

Spam — we’ve all heard of it, and most of us have received it. Although not all spam is illegal, almost all of it is a nuisance. Consumers and the Attorney General can use this law to stop unwanted spam.

Washington's anti-spam law makes it illegal in Washington to send an unsolicited commercial email IF the email is sent:

  • To a Washington email address; or
  • From a computer located in Washington.

AND using:

  • False information identifying the point of origin of the message or that hides the true origin of the sender (Also known as a "False Header");
  • False or misleading information in the subject line; or
  • A third party's email address (domain name) without permission.

The law only applies when a sender knows or has reason to know the email is being sent to Washington.

How does a sender find out if an email address is located in Washington?

  • The sender checks with the domain name registrant (usually the Internet Service Provider) before sending the email;
  • If the information is available, the sender is deemed to know the address is in Washington; or
  • Even if the sender fails to inquire about the information, as long as it's available, the sender is deemed to know.

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What is Deceptive?

Although spam may be very obnoxious or frustrating to receive, unless it violates one of the elements of Washington’s anti-spam law, it is not illegal in this state. One of the easiest ways to tell if an email violates Washington’s spam statute is to take a look at the subject line of the email and compare it to the text of the message.

Generally, a subject line is considered legally deceptive if it has a tendency or capacity to deceive consumers. It need not actually deceive or harm consumers and there need not be intent to deceive.

If the subject line is NOT deceptive — in that the subject line clearly represents what is being sent — the email does not likely meet this element of the spam statute. Unless you show that another element has been violated, you may not need to file the complaint.

How do I know if it is deceptive?

Carefully examine the body of the email message as it relates to the email’s subject line and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it accurately describe what is contained in the email? For example, does a subject line describing "important news about your taxes" contain a message with information about a get-rich-quick scheme?
  • Is it a "come-on," attempting to entice you to read the message?
  • Does it create a false sense of urgency?
  • Does it misrepresent the identity of the sender of the message?

Here are a few examples of deceptive subject lines our office has received over the years:


Subject Line Body of Spam
"board meeting 3ish" Online pharmacy solicitation
"URGENT - Account Update" Debt consolidation service
"well???" Pornography solicitation
"Check Unclaimed" Debt consolidation service
"This works – have a look" Online casino solicitation
"I talked to him yesterday" Online pharmacy solicitation
"Payment Past Due" Debt consolidation service

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