Spam is reaching such epidemic proportions that even the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which has staunchly opposed any federal anti-spam bills in the past, now plans to seek help from Washington in the form of legislation designed to slow the proliferation of "unsolicited and untargeted" e-mail.

Earlier this year, the New York-based DMA joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Financial Services Coordinating Council and the National Retail Federation in testifying against anti-spamming legislation introduced by Senators Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.). The trade groups have traditionally opposed any legislation that would limit their members' ability to use e-mail as a direct marketing tool.

Now, however, the DMA wants federal legislation.

"We are member driven and we are getting feedback that their (DMA members) messages are getting lost in the clutter," Jim Conway, vice president of government relations of the DMA, told "Readers are just deleting all messages."

Conway said the New York-based DMA does not support any of the currently introduced bills in Congress directed against spammers, but it does back certain provisions of the controversial Burns-Wyden legislation (S. 630), which did not pass the Senate before the mid-term election break and is unlikely to emerge during a November lame duck session.

The legislation would require direct marketers using e-mail to provide consumers with an "opt out" provision and a viable return address. The bill would also prohibit marketers from using misleading subject lines and empower the Federal Trade Commission to impose fines of up to $10 for each illegal message.

In addition, the bill gives individual state attorneys general the power to sue marketers, and Internet service providers would also have the legal authority to sue to keep spam off their systems. Similar legislation is languishing the House.

Conway said the DMA supports the provisions in the Burns-Wyden legislation that would give a federal pre-emption over state laws regulating spam.

"There are currently 26 states that have some form of anti-spam legislation," Conway said. "We want a federal law over a piece meal approach."

The DMA also wants a recognition of "established business relationships," which would allow marketers to continue to target consumers by e-mail.

"We want (the proposed legislation) to focus on unsolicited and untargeted e-mail," Conway said. "That's what is at the root of the problem: the vast amount of unsolicited and untargeted e-mail."

Conway also said the DMA would not support private causes of action against direct e-mail marketers, preferring that any lawsuits or enforcement actions come from a government agency.