LIFE IN CYBERSPACE / Ensnared in a Web Of Harassment home page

LIFE IN CYBERSPACE / Ensnared in a Web Of Harassment

By Matthew McAllester

JAYNE HITCHCOCK was sitting down to dinner at her Maryland home with her agent, who had come down from New York to visit the author of several nonfiction books about Okinawa, Japan. It was the first week of the year, a time of new beginnings.

The phone rang. Hitchcock picked it up.

"You don't know who I am," said the voice on the line. "But do you know your name, phone number and address are all over the Internet? I had something similar happen to me. I just wanted to warn you."

It was a new beginning. It was the start of a case of 'Net harassment.

The callers that followed were more interested in sharing their sexual fantasies with Hitchcock than in warning her of her lost anonymity on the 'Net.

So how did Hitchcock end up in this alarming situation, with 20 to 30 strangers calling her house every day from as far away as Germany to share their fantasies? It's more Alfred Hitchcock than Jayne, who has also written a children's book.

It started a year ago. A relative newbie, Hitchcock was wandering around Usenet groups when she came across a posting in a group that focuses on children's books. The posting came from a literary agency in Woodside, Queens, called the Woodside Literary Agency. It was soliciting manuscripts.

Hitchcock put in a call and had a friendly chat with a man at the agency. He asked for a proposal. She put one in the mail.

Four days later - a prompt response from an agent, in Hitchcock's experience - she received a note from the agency. It loved her proposal. By the way, could she send a check for $75 for the reading fee?

"I said, `Whoa, wait a minute. This isn't normal.' Agents don't charge a fee. They take a percentage of what you make," Hitchcock said. "I wrote back a letter saying, `You never said anything about a reading fee.' I said I felt misled. `Send back my proposal immediately."'

Unaccompanied by any note of explanation, the proposal was returned.

By this time, Hitchcock had discovered the misc.writing Usenet group. She posted there, asking other members of the newsgroup if they had heard anything about the Woodside Literary Agency. It turned out, Hitchcock said, that the person or people behind the agency had been advertising on many groups on Usenet.

Hitchcock also heard from other writers who said they had scrapes with the agency. Some said they had sent money and gotten nothing in return.

A group of just under 10 members of misc.writing, including Hitchcock and Stan Kid, a sergeant in the Malverne police department, made a point of publicizing Hitchcock's experiences with Woodside.

On the evening of Dec. 21, the e-mail bombing started.

"They selected me out of a whole group of us," Hitchcock said. "I started getting a hundred to two hundred e-mail messages an hour."

Her agent received similar treatment, as did a number of e-mail addresses at the University of Maryland, where Hitchcock works as a teaching assistant, she said.

Whoever was bombing her took a new tack in December. The following post - this is a shortened, cleaned-up version - started appearing around Usenet: "Subject: LOVE BITES. Female International Author . . . Invites you to write or call to exchange exciting phantasies with her which will be the topic of her next book."

The message included Hitchcock's correct name, telephone number and address. She was terrified. She suspected Woodside was behind it, although a lawyer representing Woodside has since denied this.

She tried the local police, the Annapolis police and the FBI. But she had not even received a threat, so there was little the authorities could do. She turned to her 'Net friends for help.

Using tech detective techniques and some of the old-fashioned sort - Kid drove to the agency's address, looked around and noted the license plate of a vehicle parked outside - Kid and Hitchcock tracked down the people they believed were responsible for the harassment.

On Jan. 13, Hitchcock's attorney, John Young of Brooklyn, filed an aggravated harassment suit in the Eastern District Court of New York, seeking $10 million in damages from James Leonard and Ursula Sprachmann, among others that include 10 Richard Does and 10 John Does.

Hitchcock said it has been hard to determine the true identities of the defendants in the case, but she and Young believe that Leonard and Sprachmann are the principal actors.

Steven Horowitz, a Manhattan attorney representing Leonard and Sprachmann, denied his clients are guilty of the claims Hitchcock makes in the suit.

"There's no susbstance to the complaint whatsoever, and my clients are completely innocent," Horowitz said. "Unfortunately, in the United States, any person with a hundred-fifty dollars can file a lawsuit."

Meanwhile, officials from the New York State Attorney General's Office are looking into the agency.

On Wednesday, Hitchcock is to testify before the Maryland State Senate as it decides whether to enact a law banning online harassment.

"I don't want someone else to go through this," Hitchcock said. "I had nowhere to go. I had to depend on people I've never met in my life."