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Author Sues Literary Agency Over Bogus Cyber-Messages

February 01, 1997

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 as Jayne Hitchcock.

The message showed up in dozens of special-interest nooks on the Internet, in discussion areas read by thousands.

"Female International Author, no limits to imagination and fantasies, prefers group 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 electronic 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 that may be the first of its kind, alleging that electronic impersonators harassed and defamed her with what she describes as a scorched-earth slander campaign in retaliation for her attempts to warn others away from a New York literary agency. A woman who answered the agency's phone yesterday denied Hitchcock's allegations. Rita Maldonado, who said she was employed by Woodside Literary Agency, said it was Hitchcock who had harassed the agency by "maligning us over the Internet."

Hitchcock's story illustrates some of the murky legal questions surrounding the growing Internet -- for one, she hasn't exactly identified her harassers, whom she knows only through e-mail addresses -- and provides the latest caveats for travelers of the uncharted 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 received dozens 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 do?" 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 writers. About a year ago, she stumbled across an e-mail ad from New York-based Woodside 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 market evaluation fee." Woodside later asked for $150 to read her book.

Suspicious, Hitchcock sought out other writers on the Internet, some of whom said they had sent money to Woodside and received nothing in return, she said. She then posted warnings about the agency on a computer network for writers; others did the same.

"I didn't want somebody who was a beginning writer . . . to be a victim," she said.

Last month, Hitchcock said, she suddenly got "mailbombed" by 200 e-mail messages to her mailbox with an Internet service provider, apparently from a bogus return address. 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 University of Maryland, where Hitchcock is a teaching assistant for an Internet class, started getting messages -- again, under her forged electronic signature -- calling the college "a breeding ground for idiots." Other groups also got belligerent messages from a "Jayne Hitchcock." 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 known as Usenet. That night, she started receiving calls from men inquiring about her fantasies.

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 along 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 becomes known to others.

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 know exactly who did what or how; she also declined to say how long Woodside has been in existence 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, a contention disputed by Richard Curtis, a New York literary agent and president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, who said such a practice carries the potential to abuse or exploit writers.

David Post, a visiting associate professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center 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 increasingly common.

"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."

@CAPTION: "I'm not so much afraid of the Internet as I am of some of the people on it," Jayne Hitchcock says.


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