The state attorney general filed a lawsuit against a 22-year-old college student and his business partner, accusing them of illegally sending hundreds of thousands of unsolicited, misleading e-mails.

Ryan Pitylak, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, heads the fourth-largest spamming operation in the world, Attorney General Gregg Abbott said.

The lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that Pitylak and Mark Trotter, his 40-year-old business partner from Encinitas, Calif., have been sending the e-mails since at least Sept. 1, 2003.

"We want to make clear that these defendants we are suing today and any other illegal spammers in the state of Texas can't hide behind a computer screen any longer," Abbott said in filing the state's first e-mail spamming lawsuit.

Lin Hughes, attorney for Pitylak and Trotter, said her clients took great pains to make sure the e-mails were legal.

The lawsuit seeks millions of dollars for violations of the federal Controlling Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003, known as the CAN-SPAM Act (search). The act made illegal sending uninvited e-mails that could mislead recipients.

The lawsuit also alleges violations of Texas laws prohibiting unsolicited e-mail and deceptive trade practices. It asks a judge to stop LeadPlex Inc. (search), LeadPlex LLC and PayPerAction LLC (search) from sending e-mails.

Pitylak and Trotter began PayPerAction in 2002 and have operated the business under at least 250 different names, Abbott said.

According to the lawsuit, the e-mails contained official-looking subject lines such as "Re: your past due bills" and "Urgent: Household Loan Memorandum: Please Read." When recipients clicked on links in the e-mails, they were asked to provide personal information that Pitylak and Trotter sold to other companies for as much as $28 per reference, the lawsuit alleges.

According to Travis County tax records, Pitylak owns a $450,000 home in an upscale Austin neighborhood. A woman who answered the door said Pitylak was out of town on business and would not be answering phone calls. Pitylak did return an e-mail, referring all questions to his attorney.

Pitylak and Trotter sold their interests in the LeadPlex and PayPerAction to Hong Kong-based Eastmark Technology Limited (search), which is also named in the lawsuit, in March, their attorney said. Hughes said Pitylak and Trotter still act as consultants to Eastmark.

Hughes said her clients did not violate the CAN-SPAM Act. She said each e-mail contains a disclaimer indicating the purpose is to gather information and a link allowing recipients to unsubscribe to the e-mails, as required by the act.

While lawsuits against spammers won't stem the tide of e-mails flooding in-boxes nationwide, Jim Prendergrast, president of Americans for Technology Leadership (search), a consumer advocacy group, said it's a start.

"It's not going to all of the sudden reduce your spam by 30 messages," Prendergrast said. "But as we see more lawsuits, coupled with better technology and better consumer habits, I think we'll see that amount go down."