DULLES, Va. -- Gov. Mark Warner signed two bills on Tuesday to raise the penalty to a felony for high volume unsolicited bulk e-mail, known as spam.

The new anti-spam provisions of the Virginia Computer Crimes Act make it the toughest such law in the United States, according to the governor's office. HB 2290, sponsored by Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites, and SB 1139, sponsored by Senator Ken Stolle, were signed by the governor in a ceremony at the world headquarters of America Online on its Dulles campus.

"Half the world's Internet traffic passes through the commonwealth of Virginia, so it is appropriate that we give our prosecutors tools to go after this costly and annoying crime," said Gov. Warner. "Before this law, legal action was almost not worth the trouble for prosecutors -- which is no message to send to our Internet industry in its fight against the spam invasion."

Already estimated by the Internet industry to represent up to 45 percent of all e-mail, spam volume is anticipated to double in the next six months, costing U.S. businesses more than $10 billion this year and $4 billion in lost productivity, the governor's office said Additionally, spam hurts ISPs who work continuously to police the practice but still lose customers because of it.

While Congress considers spam legislation for the fifth straight year, 26 states have enacted laws prohibiting spam, the governor's office said. With the exception of Virginia, each of these laws involve a civil statute designed to empower citizens, businesses and a few attorneys general to sue spammers and collect statutory and actual damages, and in some cases civil fines.

Though well intentioned, the civil approach has not resulted in curtailing the practice, the governor's office said.

Hard-core crackers and spammers -- who produce the most offensive and persistent e-mail solicitations actually aimed at crippling servers -- will now be faced with a class 6 felony in Virginia, which carries a prison term of between one and five years and a fine.

Prosecutors and the state's attorney general will also be authorized to seize profits, computer equipment and all property connected with the spamming crime. The statute was drafted to ensure it targets only the most egregious offenders and can't be applied to an innocent party who happens to send out a large mailing, the governor's office said.

To qualify for the felony provisions the sender must:

- Consciously (with intent) alter either e-mail header or other routing information (a technical characteristics common to most unsolicited bulk mail, but not present in normal e-mail messages); and

- Attempt to send either 10,000 messages within a 24/hr period or 100,000 in a 30-day period or the sender must generate $1,000 in revenue from a specific transmission or $50,000 from total transmissions.

The underlying Virginia statute that the new felony penalties enhance has survived previous constitutional challenges in cases brought by both AOL and Verizon, the governor's office said, and because it is grounded on e-mail passing through Virginia based ISPs, the statue allows prosecutors and the Virginia attorney general to legally reach out to spammers in other states and jurisdictions.

Office of Gov. Mark Warner