Caught in the Net
An online posse hunts an Internet stalker
by Jack Mingo
The trouble started last December 21. Jayne Hitchcock and her husband Chris
were sitting down to a holiday dinner with friends when they got the first of
what would become a deluge of mysterious phone calls. Some were hang-ups, and
some were more bizarre -- "Loverboy" calling collect from somewhere unknown; a
student calling from Germany wanting, he said in halting English, to discuss
his "sexual fantasies."
"It was just odd at first, but it became terrifying," recalls Hitchcock, the
author of six nonfiction and children's books. "We had no idea what was going
on." Another phone call, this one from a helpful stranger, provided a clue: "Do
you know your name is being `spammed' on sex ads all over the Usenet?"
This news that Hitchcock's name, phone number, and address were being
disseminated indiscriminately on the Internet was the first sign that she was a
victim of a new kind of harassment, one that exploits the breadth and
interconnectedness of cyberspace to turn someone's life into absolute hell.
The Internet has long operated according to its own generally accepted codes
of conduct, and Usenet is no exception. Usenet is a vast network of newsgroups,
categorized discussions on every imaginable subject from quilting to body
piercing. And newsgroup members adhere to certain tacit standards of behavior.
Most maliciousness, for instance, is confined to "flame wars" -- stinging
online exchanges of sarcasm or insults.
Clearly, though, the phone calls to Jayne Hitchcock went well beyond that.
Once she was told about the spamming of her name, Hitchcock immediately sat
down at her computer and went searching to see what her informant was talking
about. On Dejanews, a website that allows users to search thousands of
newsgroups with a few strokes of the keyboard, it didn't take long for her to
find hundreds of phony ads posted under her name, with her home address and
phone number attached:
Subject: LOVE BITES
"It was hell," says Jayne Hitchcock a few weeks later from her home office in
Crofton, Maryland. "The phone rang constantly. Meanwhile, we worried that these
sex maniacs might drop by."
Female International Author, no limits to imagination and fantasies, prefers
group macho/sadistic interaction, including lovebites and indiscriminate
scratches. Invites you to write or call to exchange exciting phantasies with
her which will be the topic of her next book. No fee or hidden expenses for
talented participants. Stop by my house. . . . Will take your
calls day or night. . . . I promise you everything you've ever
dreamt about. . . .
The harassment didn't stop there. A series of inflammatory posts to
newsgroups, ostensibly from Hitchcock, attracted hundreds of blistering e-mail
responses. Department heads at the University of Maryland, where Hitchcock
works as a teaching assistant, received insults and resignation notices forged
with her name. Hitchcock's e-mail account was "mailbombed" with hundreds of
nonsensical messages designed to short-circuit her account. Her husband's
account was also bombed, as was that of her book agent, whose name was then
also attached to inflammatory messages and also posted in various newsgroups.
Who could have done all this, and why? Hitchcock suspected that she already
knew the answer -- the Woodside Literary Agency.
Jack Mingo is the author of The Couch Potato Handbook, The Whole
Pop Catalog, and How the Cadillac Got Its Fins. His most recent book
is The Juicy Parts (Perigee, 1996).