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
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.