A brother and sister who collected $24m (£13m) of credit card orders after sending junk e-mail to millions of Americans face nine years in jail in the first successful criminal prosecution of internet "spammers" in the US.
Jeremy Jaynes, 30, and Jessica DeGroot, 28, were recommended for nine-year sentences and fines of $7,500 (£4,000) by jurors who heard the case in Virginia.
The pair were convicted on three counts of sending e-mails with fraudulent and untraceable details about the sender - a common ploy of spammers but one which became an offence in the state just over a year ago. They targeted customers of America Online (AOL), which is based in Virginia.
A third defendant, Richard Rutkowski, 30, was acquitted.
All three defendants live in Raleigh, North Carolina. The final sentence will be decided next February by the judge, who could yet throw out the case when he rules on a motion filed earlier to dismiss the charges entirely.
The case hinged on the fact that the pair had obscured their involvement in the sending of the e-mail, a means commonly used by spammers to cover their tracks and prevent them from being kicked off the internet by providers.
Spam is a huge problem on the internet, comprising 10 out of 13 e-mails, according to the security company Postini. Furthermore, almost all of them offer fake, counterfeit or fraudulent goods or schemes. Some spammers have been prosecuted over the fraudulent content, but none before for the act.
Prosecutors also detailed the fraudulent ideas being peddled by the pair, including a scheme to earn $75 per hour at home doing refunds for Federal Express, a "penny stock picker" and an "internet history eraser" programme. Gene Fishel, for the prosecution, said: "This is a snake-oil salesman in a new format." Yet like snake oil in its day, the pair's e-mails found willing buyers. In one month alone, Jaynes received 10,000 credit card orders, each for $39.95 for the Federal Express scam. "This was just a case of fraud," said Mr Fishel.
Another prosecutor, Russell McGuire, said Jaynes amassed a net wealth of $24m (£13m) peddling the worthless products. "He's been successful ripping people off all these years," Mr McGuire said.
Prosecutors had sought the maximum 15-year sentence for Jaynes, and a lesser jail term for his sister, whom they said was less culpable.
David Oblon, representing Jaynes, called the punishment excessive as the prosecution was the first under the Virginia law. He said that as a North Carolina resident, Jaynes would have been unaware of the Virginia law. He called the jury's recommendation shocking. "Nine years is absolutely outrageous when you look at what we do to people convicted of crimes like robbery and rape."
Andy Morris, product director of the security company Clearswift, said: "Nine years in jail is absolutely right, though the fine is a joke - these people made millions. But for a spammer, if they risk nine years in jail that's going to make them think twice."
Thorgeir Einarsson, European managing director of the e-mail company Sendmail, said industry initiatives should mean that from next year companies such as AOL and Yahoo! would find it easier to stop spam reaching their customers, using authentication technology.
Ten Of The Biggest Spam Merchants
1 Alan Ralsky Since 1997 has sent hundreds of millions of e-mails every day, covering all sorts of offers. Reckoned to be the biggest spammer in the world. Has criminal convictions.
2 Damon DeCrescenzo Runs Docdrugs, offering online "medications" - which might or might not work.
3 Scott Richter Claims to have 80 million "approved" addresses inviting spam but cannot name where a single one would have signed up.
4 Chris Smith Used to run a "fake diplomas" scam, and has worked with other spammers. Uses computers in China to send out spam. In the business since 1999.
5 Eddy Marin Florida-based. Has convictions dating back to 1990 for cocaine dealing.
6 Thomas Cowles Offers to provide services for other spammers kicked off the internet by providers.
7 Eric Reinertsen Spammer since 1997. Offers various scams and investment fraud.
8 Jeremy Jaynes aka Gaven Stubberfield Convicted yesterday of spamming AOL users with "work at home" and "internet history erasers". Now faces nine years in jail.
9 Juan Garavaglia aka Super-Zonda Porn and "penis extension" spammer. Specialises in taking over other people's e-mail servers to send out junk.
10 Dave Shingler/Richard Burry Canada-based porn spammers offering live gay sex videos.Reuse content