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This spammer's stash could be yours

Gold bars, cash and a fully loaded Hummer H2 are among the prizes AOL is offering as it celebrates a settlement with a spammer.

Why is AOL on the brink of giving away a fully loaded Hummer H2 and nearly $100,000 worth of gold bars and cash--all of which once belonged to an e-mail marketer?

Both AOL members and non-members--all of whom will have a chance to win the goods--can thank the Can-Spam Act.

The law, which has not gone without criticism, not only arms Internet service providers with legal weapons against those who fire off unsolicited e-mail, it also allows courts to seize any property that a convicted spammer has obtained using money made through the offense. Any equipment, software, or technology used for illicit purposes is also fair game.

AOL obtained the goods as part of a settlement earlier this year in the first lawsuit it filed under the Can-Spam Act, in a case involving a then-20-year-old New Hampshire resident.

From Wednesday until Aug. 19, people can sign up online for a chance at winning the goods. A winner will be announced shortly after the enrollment period ends.

AOL sued the New Hampshire resident in March 2004 after several months of investigation, saying the spammer made a career of dispatching millions of messages offering "ephedra, male enhancement pills and other dubious products." The company also said the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria issued a $13 million judgment against other members of the New Hampshire resident's gang.

The company said it ultimately shut down the spammer's 40-computer enterprise because of help from its members, who clicked a "report spam button" to register their complaints. Overall, the company said, spam on AOL's servers has declined by more than 85 percent since its peak in late 2003, thanks to aggressive antispam filters.

"But this isn't just a 'thank you' to members," the company said in a statement. "It also serves as a message to anyone thinking of making a living sending spam to AOL members: AOL will find you and sue you."

In a similar move last spring, AOL offered a Porsche seized from a civil settlement with a "small-time spammer" under Virginia antispam law, said company spokesman Nicholas Graham.

Now, one of the New Hampshire spammer's co-conspirators is the "next stop on our spammer treasure map," Graham said. AOL is pursuing a settlement with the co-conspirator, who the company believes has about a half-million dollars stashed away.

AOL also said it also plans to donate the "high-end" computer equipment seized from the New Hampshire spam operation to public schools near its headquarters in Northern Virginia.

AOL isn't the only company giving away spammers' money. Microsoft, which reached a $7 million settlement with former "spam king" Scott Richter, said this week it will earmark $1 million for community centers in New York in an effort to expand computer access for children and adults. The company also said it will invest $5 million in efforts to fight Internet crime.