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'Melissa' Virus Maker Gets 20 Months

The man is thought to be among the first group of people prosecuted for unleashing a computer virus on computer networks.

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- The creator of the "Melissa" virus was sentenced Wednesday to 20 months in federal prison for causing millions of dollars of damage by disrupting e-mail systems worldwide in 1999.

David L. Smith, 33, pleaded guilty in December 1999 to a state charge of computer theft and to a federal charge of sending a damaging computer program. In the federal plea, both sides agreed the damage was greater than $80 million.

Smith is believed to be among the first people ever prosecuted for creating a computer virus. In court Wednesday, he called the act a "colossal mistake."

The Melissa virus, which struck in March 1999, was disguised as an e-mail marked "important message" from a friend or colleague. It caused computers to send 50 additional infected messages. The volume of messages generated slowed some systems to a crawl.

Smith could have faced up to five years in prison, but prosecutors suggested a term of about two years, saying he had given authorities extensive assistance in thwarting other virus creators. He was also fined $5,000 by U.S. District Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr.

Smith has said he created the virus on computers in his Aberdeen apartment and used a stolen screen name and password to get into America Online.

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