Net Nightmares

By J.A. Hitchcock
Copyright ©1996 J.A. Hitchcock

It begins slowly. It creeps into your life. It does not hide under your bed or in your closet. No, it does not hide in your attic or basement, waiting for you to come in. Itís right here. On your computer. And you never knew it was there. But Iíve come to warn you, so take heed and listen closely, my children:

It was the week before Christmas, the 21st of December, to be exact. I was getting over a bout of bronchitis, so I was lazing around in bed, sniffling, coughing and feeling miserable. I hadnít been on my computer all day to check email or my newsgroups or anything. Later that night, at around 10 p.m., as I dozed off into a Nyquil sleep, my husband went upstairs to his computer. A few minutes later I heard swearing. I crawled out of bed and stumbled up the stairs.

ďWhat is it?Ē I asked.

ďWhoís S-fon at AOL?Ē He demanded angrily.

ďI donít know anyone with that name,Ē I said and peered at his computer.

There were literally dozens of email messages, all from this S-fon person, repeating the same sentences over and over. The sentences were a reply Iíd written in the misc.writing newsgroup to a topic being discussed. I narrowed my eyes. I had an inkling of who this S-fon might be. My husband angrily stopped the download of the email, changed the filters on his email program, then began downloading again. But the messages kept coming. S-fon had changed one character of his name every dozen or so messages, so that none of them could be filtered out. My husband slammed his fist on his desk. By the time the download was done, there were over 200 e-mail messages, most of them from this S-fon person.

We had been email-bombed. My husband was not happy. I was not happy. But when he checked his email again later, there were no more messages. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe it was just a fluke.

The next night, again at around 10 p.m., my husband went to check his email. S-fon had been a very busy person. There were close to 200 more messages. My husband kept some of them for our files, then deleted the rest as they came in. When the same thing happened the next night, he was ready to go out and hunt this person down. Instead, we called our Internet Service Provider, Netcom, at midnight and they changed our user name immediately. But it didnít end there.

I had quietly visited the misc.writing newsgroup the first day this happened and asked if anyone else had been email-bombed. They hadnít. But with a little help from some of the people in misc.writing, we figured out that the person behind it was none other than the Woodside Literary Agency. Shudder.

By the time things had quieted down somewhat, two weeks later, my literary agent had been email-bombed at two of their email addresses, the University of Maryland (where I work part-time) had been email-bombed, my husbandís free email account with Geocities had been bombed, I had been subscribed to several mailing lists and my name had been forged on posts in hundreds of newsgroups, with topics ranging from ďThis Group Is For MoronsĒ to ďHot For LovebitesĒ ó which was basically asking anyone and everyone to call or visit me anytime of the day or night and listed my real home phone number and home address.

I was scared. This was a nightmare. A living nightmare.

Iíve had to deal with my share of supernatural happenings ó many of you have read about them here. I can deal with those. I can also deal with people who try to harm me in person -- all you do is dial 911. But when something like this happens, where do you turn? Who do you call? Itís cyberspace. Your enemy is faceless, they're just words on a screen. Most of the time, you donít know who the other person is or why they have become so obsessed with you.

So, where did I turn? My local police were the first ones I called. They said they werenít computer literate and couldnít help. They referred me to the police commissionerís office. The guy that answered the phone laughed and said, ďI donít know what to tell ya, lady.Ē Big help. I finally called the FBI. They said that unless a death threat had been made or a physical threat, there wasnít much they could do (eventually they did file a report, but the U.S. Attorney General's office didn't think my case was serious enough for an investigation).

So I turned to my friends from the misc.writing newsgroup. They put their heads together (via e-mail and chat) and helped me get through this. Iíve never met any of these people in person, yet they took time out of their lives to help me, a stranger. But a stranger with a bad problem.

If you really want all the gory details of what happened to me, just go here: Internet Harassment/Stalking. If this doesn't make you feel creepy enough, nothing will.

Whatís life like for me now? Iím getting the word out about what happened to me and letting people know that it can happen to them. It can happen to you. Yes, you!

Just think: Most of the time, the harasser/stalker doesnít know you personally, what age you are or sometimes even your gender. You could post a totally innocent reply to something in a newsgroup and for some reason, it could set this person off like a time bomb and you become the target. You could warn people about something on the net that isnít quite ďkosherĒ (like what I did) and the person you are warning them about could get just as upset as my harasser. . .or worse. Yes, Iím lucky. I wasnít physically hurt, that's true, but what happened to me shouldn't have to happen to anyone. My harasser tried to give me a bad reputation, not only with my agent and my employer, but with the thousands of people all over the world who have access to the Internet. Thank goodness a majority of people know now that I was not the person calling them idiots and offering lovebites. And some people will never understand.

But remember, the Internet is not a bad place ó it's just that some people on it are bad. There is so much the Internet can offer to anyone of any age. My grandfather is 95, has a Pentium PC and surfs the Wordl Wide Web almost daily. He emails me frequently. My nieces and nephews are on the net, too, and because of what happened to me, Iíd like it to be a safe place for them: What if my harasser had stalked one of them instead? Whatís a little kid going to do to fight back? That's when I think to myself: "Itís almost a good thing this did happen to me, because I can do something about it so that it doesn't happen to someone else."

While I'm fighting this "crusade," I do have some advice for each and every one of you:

1. If youíre new to the net, donít post messages on newsgroups, mailings lists or send comments via email and don't fill out comment forms when you visit web pages. Wait a while. Check things out until you get a feel for it.

2. If you do go into Chat rooms, be non-committal when people ďtalkĒ to you. Better yet, just ďlurkĒ (which is basically being there, but not saying anything) until you feel comfortable. If you donít like the conversation, leave. Donít ever let anyone bully you into saying something you donít mean.

3. When you do decide to post on newsgroups, mailing lists or fill out web page forms, do so carefully. Donít ďsayĒ anything you wouldnít say to that personís face. Iíve been guilty of this myself and admit it. Itís hard, especially when youíre typing away on a keyboard, angry about something. Or even happy about something. Not everyone will understand your brand of humor if you're sarcastic with your reply. Word things so that anyone who reads it will understand if you are being humorous or serious.

4. Never, ever give out personal information about yourself unless you are certain you are ready to. Is the other person youíve been corresponding with really the tall, attractive 30ish redhead they say they are? Or short, fat and dumpy and maybe only 10 years old? Be careful.

5. Use your main email account for personal/business-related email only. Take advantage of the free email programs available, such as Juno or Hotmail and use that email address when posting to newsgroups, etc. Then, if you do get harassed or mail-bombed or anything like that, itís easy to cancel the account, stay off the net for a while, then get a new account and start all over.

6. Donít let anyone scare you away from the Internet. Itís a wonderful place. As you can see, it hasnít scared me away. Iím back, using a Juno account for my basic email, and I still post to my favorite newsgroups. But Iím more careful this time around. You should be, too.

Feel free to drop me a line. If youíve got a Net Nightmare of your own to share, let me know. Maybe I can help ó youíre not alone anymore.

J.A. Hitchcock is the author of seven books, including Net Crimes & Misdemeanors and The Ghosts of Okinawa.