WHEN Elaine Cioni found out her married boyfriend had other girlfriends she turned to YourHackerz.com.
For $US100, the website provided Cioni, then living in northern Virginia, with the password to her boyfriend's AOL email account. For another $100, she got her boyfriend's wife's password. And then the password of another girlfriend and the boyfriend's children.
Cioni began making harassing phone calls to her boyfriend and his family, using a ''spoofing'' service to disguise her voice as a man's. This attracted the attention of federal authorities, who prosecuted Cioni, 53, last year for unauthorised access to computers, among other crimes. She was convicted and is serving a 15-month sentence.
But services such as YourHackerz.com are still active, with names such as ''piratecrackers.com'' and ''hackmail.net''. They boast of having little trouble hacking into such email systems as AOL, Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook and Hotmail.
Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said: ''We've been using email for years, and it's been insecure all that time … If you have any hacker who is competent and targets you, he's going to get you.''
Federal US law prohibited hacking into email, but without further illegal activity it was only a misdemeanour, said Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University.
Not long after then-governor Sarah Palin of Alaska was named the Republican nominee for vice-president last year, someone hacked into her personal Yahoo email accounts.
It's not clear where YourHackerz.com is located but experts suspect most of the businesses are based overseas.
All the services advertise that they will email a screenshot of the target's inbox or even send an email from the target's account as proof that they've cracked the password. The customer then sends payment. One service then responds with the script of a scene from a Shakespeare play, with the stolen password hidden in the copy.
Experts say there are numerous ways to steal someone's email password, from simply guessing family names to high-tech infiltration. The most common way is to send the target a link to something they might be interested in. When the target opens the link, software is installed on their computer that snatches the password the next time it's typed in and sends it to the hacker.
''We think of a computer as being incredibly sophisticated. But as it does more, it actually becomes less secure,'' said Mr Eckersley.