Spam e-mail costs internet companies billions each year
In a crackdown on unsolicited e-mail, known as spam, authorities in the American state of Virginia have introduced harsh penalties for anyone sending computer messages using deception.
The legislation makes high-volume or fraudulent spamming, in which more than 10,000 spams are sent a day, a criminal offence which could lead to the seizure of assets and up to five years in prison.
Proscribed offences include hacking into a computer to send e-mail messages or forging the return address of a mailing.
The state is home to many of America's major internet providers, including the country's biggest, America Online (AOL).
"We want to be able to put out not only a potential criminal violation with the felony but also to seize the proceeds from this illegal activity - their cars, boats, airplanes, homes," Governor Mark R Warner said.
Although half of American states have anti-spam legislation they rely on civil penalties which Mr Warner said were proving insufficient.
Joining the governor in announcing the new measures was Randall Boe, AOL's chief
Many messages are disguised to look like they come from friends
Mr Boe said spam e-mail had become an expensive problem for the company, which has 35 million users, and that although they endeavoured to block as much of it as possible, much still got through.
The tough new laws are aimed at commercial bulk e-mail, especially those that send over 10,000 spam messages a day or make at least $1,000 from such transmissions.
"That's different than an occasional e-mail gone awry," Mr Warner said.
According to an analysis of unsolicited mail by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) two out of three unsolicited e-mail messages contain some sort of false information and about 44% hide their return address or purport to be from a friend or business associate.
Although many states require commercial e-mail to carry the tag "ADV" in the subject line the FTC said only around 2% of spammers comply - while many try to trick users into opening the mail by using phrases such as "re: lunch tomorrow".