Sending Spam Email Is Illegal in the United States

The fines and penaties under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003

spam folder
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Hate getting spam email?  Most people do and yet the spam-mail industry is booming despite the overwhelming dislike consumers have for spam emails.  The reason is simple: there is a lot of money to be made in the "information" business and frankly, that really is what most spam emails boil down to the buying and selling your personal data (click on a spam email and you validate the email address and will only end up getting even more spam!)

Spammers harvest information and either use it for their own marketing campaigns or sell or trade data they collect. Most people hate spam emails but do not realize that there is a law that gives some protection against spammers.  Because so few people are aware of these laws, and it is easier to simply ignore spam mail than to report it, most spammers never even get a wrist-slap.

What is the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003?

CAN-SPAM stands for "Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act." This law was enacted in 2004 to regulate the practices of commercial emailers.

Fines for Violating Commercial Email Laws

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in charge of enforcing laws under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and has the authority to levy fines against business owners.

For each and every violation of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, a business or person engaging in commercial emails can be fined up to $11,000.

The FTC specifically states that additional fines may be levied on commercial emailers for violating any of the following illegal acts:

  • "Harvest" email addresses from websites or web services that have published a notice prohibiting the transfer of email addresses for the purpose of sending email
  • Generate email addresses using a "dictionary attack" - combining names, letters, or numbers into multiple permutations
  • Use scripts or other automated ways to register for multiple email or user accounts to send commercial email
  • Relay emails through a computer or network without permission - for example, by taking advantage of open relays or open proxies without authorization.

Criminal Penalties for Violating Commercial Email Laws

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has been granted the authority to enforce criminal sanctions against commercial emailers. Criminal penalties include imprisonment to those who violate or conspire to violate, any of the following aspects of the law:

  • Use another computer without authorization and send commercial email from or through it
  • Use a computer to relay or re-transmit multiple commercial email messages to deceive or mislead recipients or an Internet access service about the origin of the message
  • Falsify header information in multiple email messages and initiate the transmission of such messages
  • Register for multiple email accounts or domain names using information that falsifies the identity of the actual registrant
  • Falsely represent themselves as owners of multiple Internet Protocol addresses that are used to send commercial email messages.

Additional Regulations That Affect Commercial Emailers

There are other punishable regulations for commercial emailers under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, including:

  • Assisting another person or business, or have another person or entity send unsolicited commercial email to any address where the recipient has requested no more contact from you.
  • Under CAN-SPAM, it is illegal to sell, trade, transfer, or offer for any purpose, email addresses of any recipients who have opted out, or requested that they are removed from your email list.

Stay Updated on Commercial Email Laws

To keep up-to-date on legislative changes regarding business email conduct, as well as how the CAN-SPAM Act is currently being implemented, visit the FTC's spam information website.


The U.S. Federal Trade Commission. "The CAN-SPAM Act: Requirements for Commercial Emailers." April 2004.



The U.S. Federal Trade Commission. "The CAN-SPAM Act: Requirements for Commercial Emailers." April 2004.