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

Caught in the Net

Part 3

by Jack Mingo

Everyone else -- even "Kiki Rothschild," who proposed a neo-Nazi novel called Even Hitler Got the Blues -- received an acceptance letter from Woodside congratulating them for being among the one in 20 that Woodside accepts, and asking for a $150 "reading fee."

Although Hitchcock was just one of many writers challenging its ads, the Woodside agency targeted her in particular for retaliation. To her warnings about the agency, it posted responses that were cryptic ("FART!" read one in its entirety), baroque ("How bitter are sour grapes. Be it known that all who attack literary agents have in 99% of the time been rejected, so they bite their own tail, and cry, cry, cry,"), or downright scary. One message, repeated over and over again, read "SUBJECT: HITCHCOCK, PLEASE STOP DON'T CALL THE AGENCY COLLECT ANYMORE. THEY KNOW ABOUT YOU. IT'S AN OBSESSION. I'M REALLY NOT INTERESTED IN YOU. EVERYTHING THAT COULD BE SAID HAS BEEN SAID. STOP IT NOW. . . ."

"I never called them collect," says Hitchcock. "You can check my phone records."

In August, the agency threatened to sue Hitchcock and other newsgroup posters; it also posted claims in group after group that she was a pornographer who was bitter because Woodside had rejected her. Because of both the lawsuit threat and what she considered a clear-cut case of libel, Hitchcock consulted an attorney. He began preparing a case, and also began forwarding copies of relevant Woodside-related posts to the New York Attorney General's office with a suggestion that investigators might want to look into the agency's practices. Woodside's lawsuit never materialized.

For most of last year, Woodside posted messages with its name clearly identified and its e-mail address attached to its ads. Shortly before the holidays, however, Woodside started putting phony return e-mail addresses on its advertising so that complaints would go to the wrong mailboxes and to the wrong ISP. It was this technique that somebody would use a few weeks later, says Hitchcock, to post counterfeit messages in her name. "Of course," she says, "it is not so difficult to do with some software, so that's not anything like direct proof, but I had no reason to suspect anybody but Woodside."

Because of the continuing harassment and the fear of bodily harm, Hitchcock called the FBI and was assigned an agent to look into her case. Still, that didn't solve the immediate problem of the phone calls and angry e-mails. Hitchcock changed her e-mail address, and then she did something people in small towns often do in situations like this: she decided to appeal to her Internet neighbors, who in this case were scattered across North America and Europe. Most of them she has never met face to face, but they had proved reliable friends and confidants in long conversations over months. A small posse was rounded up and an informal mailing list begun, an ad hoc network of people communicating by e-mail to coordinate their efforts.

"What happened to Jayne shouldn't have happened to anyone," says Sally Towse, an amateur Internet sleuth from Saratoga, California. "Quite frankly, I had little faith in Woodside's ISP, which didn't seem to be putting a great deal of importance to the problem at first, or the ability of the FBI or the police to move with the speed that was obviously necessary with the forged `Love Bites' posts."

The first priority was to stop the damage by quickly answering and then canceling the phony "Love Bites" posts. Members of misc.writing fanned out across Usenet, hunting down posts and putting up responses. They recruited Chris Lewis, a highly regarded computer-security expert from Ottawa who, in his free time, works as an anti-spammer. He has written wide-ranging "cancelbot" software that erases spam posts before they can do much damage. Lewis informed the group that he and anti-spamming colleagues were already searching out and destroying the forged Hitchcock Love Bites posts, as well as a whole new round of hundreds of ads Woodside had posted a few days later.

The spamming of commercial ads into group after group has been considered a problem on Usenet for some time. The practice received wider attention in 1994, when a couple of lawyers advertised in almost every newsgroup in existence that their agency could help non-citizens get US green cards. Since then, the specter of Usenet's becoming nothing but ads has haunted many of the people who hold the medium dear. A few, like Lewis, have worked to develop software that can find and suppress all mass postings that repeat more times than is generally considered reasonable.

While one group of misc.writing members was dealing with the outlaw posts themselves, another was working to find out what it could about both the Love Bites poster and the Woodside Literary Agency. It still hadn't been proven beyond doubt that the two were connected; though the Internet can be used to invade privacy, it can also be used, for better and worse, to provide a shield.

Hitchcock, Towse, Fouts, and other amateur Internet detectives familiar with the agency's posts compared notes via e-mail. "Exactly who is Woodside, anyway?" they asked. Although Woodside attempted to give the impression of being a large agency, signing its posts with more than a half-dozen names of supposed agents, nearly all seemed to be written with the same idiosyncratic grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The group called the mystery poster "Woody."

The amateur cybersleuths used CD-ROM directories to search every white-pages directory in the country. They found that two of the three addresses listed on Woodside stationery had phones registered in the name of one Ursula Sprachman. The third address, the agency's "main office" in Woodside, New York, apparently had no listed number. However, Edward Zorn, a New Yorker from misc.writing, took a trip to the state's Department of Motor Vehicles and, for a $3 fee, found out that a Dodge Raider parked in front of Woodside's main office was registered to Sprachman as well.

A question arose: was is it possible that Woody was a woman? Conjecture came back at e-mail speed: Ursula Sprachman might be a girlfriend or wife uninvolved in the scam. Or maybe Sprachman was "Woody's" mom. Maybe she was part of a husband-wife team, perhaps the partner of the man with a slightly Germanic accent whose voice could be heard on the agency's answering machine.

I'd heard that voice several times, trying to get answers and comments for this story. The agency never returned my calls, but on one attempt I finally reached a live person, a woman.

"You'll need to talk with one of the agents, but they're all in a meeting," she said. She refused to comment on anything, to reveal the names of Woodside's principals, or to give her own name. "Why don't you put your questions in writing and mail them to the agency?" she suggested. Before hanging up, she denied being, or even knowing, Ursula Sprachman, and she continued to hang up in response to repeated follow-up calls.

Stan Kid, a misc.writing regular who also happens to have a day job as a police sergeant in Nassau County, Long Island, decided to take a walk past Woodside's headquarters. He issued an e-mail report:

I found the "main office" at 33-29 58th St, Woodside, NY. It is a private attached two-family house in a crappy industrial neighborhood. An aluminum awning stretched from the house to the sidewalk. On the front of the awning was a sign, "The Woodside Literary Agency." Next to the entrance of the awning was a shingle which said "USP Family Counseling and Psychotherapy." I went up the steps and found a wrought iron, open scrollwork door blocking the way to the porch and front door. There was a mail slot in it and a hand-written note taped to it. Said, "This is the mail box." The wrought iron door also had a knocker on it, the use of which brought no one. I sat and watched the house for over an hour. No one came or went. If the FBI or any other law enforcement agency gets involved, it shouldn't take too much detective work to find J. Leonard or Dr. Susan Day. Maybe even Jimmy Hoffa.

The cyberdetectives continued their attempts to pin down the source of the Love Bites posting. Sally Towse decided to try a technique she'd learned earlier: "Someone once posted an article anonymously, claiming to be a misc.writing regular. Generally, that's considered a sign of bad faith, and I took exception to the post, so I began noodling around, taking certain pieces of information from its header and comparing it with posts from known contributors of the group."

The header is a string of technical information attached to every e-mail and Usenet posting. "It looks like gibberish to most people," says Towse, "but if you read it right, it can tell you all sorts of things about the person's computer, ISP, and geographic location. I had been successful then in identifying the anonymous poster, so I wondered if I could do the same thing here."

Towse says it's like blood analysis at a crime scene: a process of ruling out suspects until you have just one, or at most a few, who match the blood type and other factors. She went laboriously through the Love Bites postings and compared their header information to that of all other recent posters in those same newsgroups. Time after time, she consistently found a perfect match with only one other set of posts -- the messages that Woodside had just put up advertising its agency. Both were sent using an old version of Windows and the same rarely used, badly outdated "x-mailer" software, and both came through the same Internet provider, IDT in New York. She reported to the e-mail group: "Of the zillions (it seems . . . but really not that many) of posts I checked, no one had that x-mailer-type AND used IDT New York for posts, except Woodside and the forging spammer."

Had Towse found the smoking gun that everyone was looking for? Not exactly. It was more like a bloody glove with a rare blood type. The odds were extremely good that the two posts were from the same computer, but not absolutely provable. However, a spam-canceling colleague of Lewis's, Stan Kalisch III, moved the group closer to establishing the connection. While canceling posts, he ran across a curious anomaly in three Usenet groups, alt.culture.usenet, alt.society.anarchy, and talk.origins -- the standard Woodside advertisement, posted from the same software, but with Hitchcock's name and e-mail address inexplicably attached to the message header.

To the cyberdetectives, only one scenario seemed to make sense: that Woody had posted the forged "Love Bites" come-ons, and had then sent out ads for the agency, but had neglected to switch from its counterfeit Hitchcock address to the other until after accidentally posting three times. Chris Lewis wrote a carefully worded report to the e-mail group: "This is a good smoking gun, in that what appears to be a normal Woodside advertisement appears to be coming from the same account that was forging the Hitchcock stuff." He added, however, that only subpoenaing the records of IDT would answer the question for sure.

This new anomaly in the message headers may not have been absolute proof, but when added to everything else it was enough for Hitchcock's attorney, John A. Young, of New York City. On January 13, in the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, Young filed a lawsuit against Ursula Sprachman and any other "John Does and Richard Roes . . . of the Woodside Literary Agency," asking for actual and punitive damages totaling $10 million. Explains Young: "The suit charges that Woodside and its cohorts have terrorized and harassed Jayne Hitchcock through a pattern of racketeering which includes forgery, libelous defamation, and other criminal activity by which the defendants willfully and maliciously have caused her acute emotional distress and placed her in fear of sexual or other physical assault and of her very life."

Young believes the case could be precedent-setting: "I think it will be established that, while the Internet is a frontier, it is not a lawless frontier."

At this writing, Woodside has not responded to the suit. In late January, it spammed ads to hundreds of groups again, this time under the name "International Literary Agency," sending the misc.writing response squad and the spam-cancellers scrambling in pursuit. Still, there have been no new spams of the Love Bites variety.

Finally, after a few weeks, just as the scary phone calls had dwindled down to just one or two per day and the Hitchcocks began breathing easier again, there came something new to deal with. Unsolicited merchandise started arriving at their front door. On January 22, it was a Forbes subscription, two packages from record companies, and a mysterious plain brown package with a Long Island postmark that didn't match its return address. A jittery Hitchcock called 911 and was told to leave the house immediately. When the police arrived, they inspected the parcel closely. . . . and discovered that it contained incense. "What a crappy way to live," sighs Hitchcock. "When is it going to end?

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.