February 13 - 20, 1 9 9 7
[Caught in the Net]

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:


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. . . .

"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."

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.

Part 2

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).

Copyright © 1997 The Phoenix Media/Communication Group. All rights reserved.