Caught in a Net of Deception
Author Sues Literary Agency Over Bogus Cyber-Messages
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 16 1997; Page D01
The Washington Post
Somewhere out in the faceless chaos of cyberspace, someone was masquerading
The message showed up in dozens of special-interest nooks on the Internet, in
areas read by thousands.
"Female International Author, no limits to imagination and fantasies, prefers
ma\cho/sadistic interaction including lovebites and indiscriminate scratches.
. . . Will take
your calls day or night."
It listed Jayne Hitchcock's name. Her phone number. Her home address. And an
postmark forged to make a reader believe the lurid message had come from her.
This week, the Anne Arundel County woman filed a federal lawsuit in New York
be the first of its kind, alleging that electronic impersonators harassed and
with what she describes as a scorched-earth slander campaign in retaliation
attempts to warn others away from a New York literary agency. A woman who
the agency's phone yesterday denied Hitchcock's allegations. Rita Maldonado,
she was employed by Woodside Literary Agency, said it was Hitchcock who had
the agency by "maligning us over the Internet."
Hitchcock's story illustrates some of the murky legal questions surrounding
Internet -- for one, she hasn't exactly identified her harassers, whom she
through e-mail addresses -- and provides the latest caveats for travelers of
electronic universe. "I'm not so much afraid of the Internet as I am of some
of the people
on it," said Hitchcock, a 38-year-old writer from Crofton, who says she
of harassing phone calls and hundreds of angry e-mail notes after the
messages with her
name appeared. "If someone can ruin my life like this, what else could they
Hitchcock, the author of four books published overseas, was hoping to snag
her first U.S.
book contract when she joined several Internet discussion groups for aspiring
About a year ago, she stumbled across an e-mail ad from New York-based
Literary Agency soliciting manuscripts.
Hitchcock sent in a proposal. In response, she got "an absolutely glowing
letter" from an
agent asking her to send in her manuscript -- along with a $75 "reading and
evaluation fee." Woodside later asked for $150 to read her book.
Suspicious, Hitchcock sought out other writers on the Internet, some of whom
had sent money to Woodside and received nothing in return, she said. She then
warnings about the agency on a computer network for writers; others did the
"I didn't want somebody who was a beginning writer . . . to be a victim," she
Last month, Hitchcock said, she suddenly got "mailbombed" by 200 e-mail
her mailbox with an Internet service provider, apparently from a bogus return
Next, she said, her new literary agent started receiving messages that
appeared to be from
her, threatening to cancel her contract. And several departments at the
Maryland, where Hitchcock is a teaching assistant for an Internet class,
messages -- again, under her forged electronic signature -- calling the
college "a breeding
ground for idiots." Other groups also got belligerent messages from a "Jayne
Then, two weeks ago, Hitchcock learned that her name and phone number were on
several sexually oriented computer bulletin boards on an area of the Internet
Usenet. That night, she started receiving calls from men inquiring about her
Hitchcock said she and the lawyer handling her $10 million civil suit believe
they can trace
the messages back to Woodside, whose name appeared in some of the messages
with hers. Her suit names as defendants the agency and several people
believed to be
employees, based on the company's e-mail ads and its letters to her, as well
as several John
Does still to be identified.
Computer specialists said it is complicated but possible for a skilled user
to blur the origins
of a message. Another way messages can be faked is if a user's password
The FBI is investigating Hitchcock's allegations against Woodside.
Maldonado, the woman who answered Woodside's phone yesterday, denied that the
agency had organized an e-mail campaign against Hitchcock. But she said,
"Some of our
friends got into the act, and they retaliated." Maldonado said she did not
who did what or how; she also declined to say how long Woodside has been in
or give the names of authors or publishing houses it works with.
Maldonado did say it is normal for an agency to charge writers a reading fee,
disputed by Richard Curtis, a New York literary agent and president of the
Authors' Representatives, who said such a practice carries the potential to
abuse or exploit
David Post, a visiting associate professor of law at Georgetown University
and co-director of the Cyberspace Law Institute, said Hitchcock's case may be
a first, and
he predicted that complaints of electronic impersonation will become
"I can write a letter and sign your name on it," he said. "It's not unheard
of. . . . But it's
easier to do persuasively with e-mail."
A case like this, he said, probably will increase the demand for
"authentication" devices to
prove where e-mail is coming from. "You can no longer assume that something
that says it
is from Jayne Hitchcock," he said, "is actually from Jayne Hitchcock."
Copyright ©1997 The Washington Post