Prosecutors said Thursday that an alias of one of the defendants, Jeremy Jaynes, is number 8 on the Spamhaus.org list of the world's 10 biggest spammers.
The indictments, returned Monday by a grand jury in Loudoun County, Va., are based on Virginia's anti-spam law, which took effect July 1. Prosecutors said it's the first time spamming has brought felony charges.
The indictment names Jaynes - accused of using the aliases of Jeremy James and Gaven Stubberfield - and co-defendant Richard Rutowski, who each face four counts of transmission of unsolicited bulk electronic mail. Each count carries up to five years in prison.
The anti-spam group Spaumhaus.org says Jaynes and an individual known as "Richard Ruckowski" started out as non-stop porn spammers and moved on to hiring themselves out for other kinds of unwanted sales pitches.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said the North Carolina men ran a massive spamming operation that used the America Online computer network, which is headquartered in Loudoun County. AOL is a major reason more than half the world's Internet traffic passes through Virginia.
"This was a very profitable business for these two individuals," Kilgore said, but investigators declined to say how much income they believe the scheme generated.
The spam included "penny-picker stock schemes, mortgage interest rate ads and an Internet history eraser," said Lisa Hicks-Thomas, director of Virginia's computer crime unit in Kilgore's office.
Between July 11 and Aug. 11, more than 100,000 complaints about spam messages linked to the two men were reported, Kilgore said.
Ordinary web users helped provide evidence leading to the indictment, according to AOL, which says AOL customers used the "Report Spam" button to send in thousands of complaints that were used to investigate and indict the defendants.
"The defendants falsified or forged electronic mail transmission information, or other routing information," Kilgore said. The volume of messages and efforts to conceal their identities elevated prosecution of the case to felony level, he said.
Jaynes, 29, of Raleigh, N.C., is being held in North Carolina pending a request for extradition. Rutowski, of Cary, N.C., is expected to surrender to authorities under terms being worked out through his attorney.
The indictments were announced Thursday at AOL headquarters. Curtis P. Lu, deputy general counsel for the company, said spam filters and other measures by AOL block 1.5 billion e-mails a day.
Many states have anti-spam laws, but Virginia's allows prosecutors to seek not only prison time for offenders, but also the assets earned from spamming.
Federal legislation allowing for the criminal prosecution of spammers has been passed by Congress and is awaiting President Bush's signature.