Area woman files precedent-setting suit over cyberspace harassment

Staff Writer

When Crofton author Jayne Hitchcock tried to warn other writers about an Internet scam, she found herself the target of one of the most thorough smear campaigns ever to hit cyberspace.

Among other things, her harassers sent a message entitled "Sexy lovebites" to several sex-oriented groups on the Internet. The message invited interested parties to drop by to fulfill their sexual fantasies -- and gave Ms. Hitchcock's home address and phone number.

With the help of the FBI and the New York state Attorney General's Office, the author of six children's books is fighting back.

Ms. Hitchcock yesterday filed a $10 million harassment lawsuit in New York that could break new ground in Internet law -- that is, if she can just figure out whom to sue.

Her lawsuit is among the first to charge harassment and defamation of character via the Internet.

"It may be almost unique," said New York attorney John A. Young, the Crofton woman's lawyer.

Ms. Hitchcock's troubles began in April when she answered an advertisement -- distributed via e-mail -- for an organization called the Woodside Literary Agency.

E-mail allows computer users to exchange typed messages, even to congregate in topic-oriented conversations called newsgroups. Each message has a "From:" line, but these signatures can easily be ren dered meaningless -- or forged to present a false identity.

Ms. Hitchcock said she mailed a manuscript to Woodside's New York address and received a gushing message full of compliments -- and a request for a $75 reading fee and $250 for expenses.

Since her writing career taught her that most agents don't work for cash in advance, Ms. Hitchcock began warning the participants in several newsgroups about a possible scam.

Soon, Woodside began insulting Ms. Hitchcock in its e-mail ads, she said.

"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," read one message, Ms. Hitchcock said.

But in early December, the Woodside messages took a sinister turn.

The lawsuit alleges that Woodside and its agents were responsible for a mammoth flow of insulting messages sent to hundreds of newsgroups -- over Jayne Hitchcock's forged signature.

Many of the hundreds of messages to the newsgroups were form letters titled: "You're all morons."

Other messages had custom headers for maximum insult.

"Dirt digging is stupid" read a posting to alt.archeology. "Ecology is not a science" went to Rec.arts.bodyart got, "You are all perverts."

Ms. Hitchcock has received hundreds of e-mail messages either yelling at her or trying to take her up on the offer of sexual relations.

Many others wrote back with varia tions on how-sick-can-you-be. "It was hell week last week," she said. "What if some of these idiots come to the door?" Worse, her phone began to ring off the hook.

"Some guy actually called from Germany and was like, `Yes, I want to share fantasies,"' she said.

The harassers went further, sending hostile messages to organizations listed at Ms. Hitchcock's World Wide Web site.

Several departments at the University of Maryland University College, where Ms. Hitchcock teaches an introductory class on the Internet, received insulting messages over her forged signature, school officials said.

"This place is a breeding ground for idiots," one message read.

Even Ms. Hitchcock's agent, the Connecticut-based Redstone Literary Services, lost several days' work when the harassers sent out inflammatory messages over the agency's signature, agent Dennis Gillette said.

Although most of the damage seems to have been repaired with a flurry of explanatory messages, the experience has cemented Ms. Hitchcock's desire to go after her harassers.

"I can't let him get away with this. I can't let him do it to anybody else," she said.

In addition to the lawsuit, FBI officials are looking into the possibility of charging the harassers with threatening communications, said Special Agent Steve Tidwell, who's based in Annapolis. Mr. Young said the New York State's Attorney's Office is investigating possible fraud charges.

Ms. Hitchcock and her supporters have catalogued 25 different Internet accounts and five different names allegedly used by Woodside.

Their legal ability to find out who paid for the accounts remains unclear.

Officials at Woodside couldn't be reached for comment, and all of its known e-mail addresses have been shut down.

But unless someone can track down the flesh-and-blood person behind the electronic aliases, the precedent-setting lawsuit may simply fizzle out.

Published Jan. 14,1997, in The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 1997 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.