Our long-term plan

I am now pursing the anti-spam lawsuits on four separate fronts:

What you can do

For non-Washington residents

If you are not a Washington State resident, I don't know anything about the anti-spam laws in other states, but SpamCon.org is a great source of information.

For Washington residents

If you are a Washington State resident and you want to sue a spammer in Small Claims Court, I would recommend waiting until there have been some higher court rulings to clarify how small claims courts are supposed to interpret the law. There are currently only a handful of "trail blazers" -- including me, Martin Palmer, Bruce Miller, Joel Hodgell, and Ben Livingston -- filing anti-spam lawsuits without the benefit of a consistent set of past court rulings. If you want to be one of the "trail blazers", then by all means, join in -- however, this is only if you want to sue spammers as a matter of principle (to help fight spam, and to help establish a set of consistent court rulings that people can use in the future). You probably won't earn enough money just to pay for your time. (Martin Palmer said he averaged $175 per hour, but most people have averaged much less, so far.)

Also, I would recommend not getting involved in an anti-spam lawsuit without a certain amount of "Internet savvy". If you're not familiar with the difference between a dynamic and a static IP address, or with "getting WHOIS information for a domain name", or viewing the "full headers" of an email message, then the technicalities of suing a spammer would probably be too difficult to navigate.

Suing a spammer using the current state of the Washington law

If you still want to sue a spammer for $500 in Small Claims Court under Washington's anti-spam law, this is what I have found to be the conditions for an "ideal anti-spam lawsuit":

Unfortunately, the first two criteria rule out a lot of spam. Porn spams from blatantly faked addresses like "98of292h38h2r@hotmail.com" often give no clue as to the identity of the company that sent it. Even if the spam has a link to a porn site, the site may not contain the company's legal name. And when spam does come from a company that is easily identifiable, often the return address will be real -- which means it would be much harder (thought not always impossible) to show that the spam violated Washington's anti-spam law.

Some things to keep in mind:

If you still think you have a good case, you may be ready to bring a lawsuit. You can get comfortable with how small claims court works by sitting in on some small claims hearings at your local District Court. There are books about how to navigate small claims court -- Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, from Nolo Press, is extremely thorough and readable -- but most of the information in those books does not apply to a situation where you're suing a party who won't show up, and where the hardest part of the case is proving that you identified and served them properly.

If you're ready to sue, you still need to make sure that you can properly serve the lawsuit papers on the defendant, and that you will have "proof of service" when you appear in court. If you think you know the state where they're incorporated, find the name and address of the corporation's registered agent in that state. The registered agent is usually a third party, like a law firm or an accountant, that acts as a company's "representative" for matters such as receiving lawsuit papers. To find the registered agent, first find the Secretary of State for that state (use http://www.pac-info.com/ -- in almost every state, the Secretary of State has a Web page). If there is a corporations database lookup form on their site, use that to find the registered agent. Otherwise, they should have a number that you can call. When you file a lawsuit, you should send the defendant's copy of the lawsuit papers to the corporation's registered agent. If the registered agent is a person, send the papers by "certified mail, with a return receipt, with restricted delivery" (the Post Office will know what to do). If the registered agent is a company, then send the papers by "certified mail with a return receipt" (you can only do restricted delivery to a person, not to a company), and then once you get the receipt back, call the company that acts as the registered agent, and make sure the signature on the receipt is the signature of someone who works there.

It could take anywhere from several days to several weeks for the green postal receipt to come back to your mailbox. When it comes back, save it, since that's your "proof of service". If the letter is returned undelivered, it may be marked undeliverable, or the registered agent may have refused to sign for the letter (this often happens if the registered agent actually works for the company that you're suing -- they're just trying to make it difficult for you). If the registered agent refused to sign, then call the sheriff's department for the county where the defendant (or their registered agent) is located, and find out how the sheriff's office can do "service of process" for you, and how much it will cost. If the mailman tries to make you sign for a piece of restricted-delivery mail, you can say refuse, but I don't think you can refuse if the sheriff shows up to serve papers on you.

In the days leading up to the trial, ask the District Court if they've received a letter from the defendant. The defendant probably isn't planning to appear at the trial, but they may have written a letter to the judge giving their side. That letter will get added to the file for that case, so you can request a copy.

At the actual trial, bring a copy of the spam that you received, the green receipt that shows proof of service on the defendant, a copy of Washington's anti-spam law, and anything else that might help just for the sake of being thorough (such as a printout of the defendant's Web site, if they have one).

Now here's the problem: even if you do everything right, you could still lose. This is because of the ambiguities in how the law is currently being interpreted -- for example, the judge may say that you cannot sue in Small Claims Court unless you've lost money. Then you're out of luck. This is exactly why we're recommending to people that before attempting to sue a spammer in small claims court, they wait until a higher court has issued some clarifying rulings.


I am not a lawyer and nothing on this page should be construed as legal advice. This is simply information that I have collected from my experiences.