University of Minnesota freshman Kathleen O'Donnell found a puzzling message while checking e-mail on her dorm computer in January: "I'm your college club match."
It was an anonymous response to her profile page on the College Club Web site. Before long, though, the e-mails turned sinister.
"They became more and more threatening," O'Donnell recalled. "Then he started to change my Web site password, and I couldn't get into my e-mail." Using her password, the hacker posted her high school class picture, defaced with pornography, on her profile page.
Such Internet harassment is a growing problem in Minnesota and elsewhere, state and FBI officials say. And like many victims, O'Donnell, 19, wasn't sure what to do. She suspected another student whose romantic overtures she had rebuffed.
"I felt really scared and helpless," she said. "You can call the cops if somebody robbed you, but I didn't feel like they would be able to catch him because it was through the computer."
Then, about 3 a.m. one day in early March, an instant message flashed across her computer screen. The sender threatened to use her Social Security number to open bank accounts, adding:
"Do you think you're safe? Do you think that you can be safe from me?"
O'Donnell called the university police. They asked the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to help identify the hacker. The electronic trail led to another student, Victor D. Shikhman, 18, of Glendale, Wis. He was convicted last month in Hennepin County District Court of gross misdemeanor harassment, and unauthorized access and damage to O'Donnell's computer, both misdemeanors.
The online harassment case was the first to be tried in Minneapolis, officials said, and offered a disturbing glimpse of this growing crime.
Donald Cheung, a BCA agent who testified at the trial, said e-mail harassment is rampant in Minnesota. But he said most of it ends when victims change their e-mail address or notify their Internet service provider, which can cancel the harasser's account.
If police investigate, suspects usually plead guilty rather than have the embarrassing, often pornographic, contents of their computer files publicized in trials, said Cheung, who works on cyber crimes with agencies around Minnesota.
Federal law prohibits identity theft, but not Internet harassment, said Special Agent Coleen Rowley of the FBI's Minneapolis office. Because uniform crime reports don't list online harassment as a specific crime, it is hard to find statistics on how often it happens, she said.
However, an online abuse assistance organization in New Hampshire receives about 100 requests a week from cyberstalking victims seeking help, said Jayne Hitchcock, president of a nonprofit group called Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA).
Hitchcock, who teaches classes on investigating Internet harassment for law enforcement officers, said she started WHOA in 1996 after she suffered e-mail harassment in Maryland. Maryland became the first state to outlaw cyberstalking, in 1997, she said. Minnesota passed a similar provision in 2000, becoming one of about 34 states that now have such laws.
The BCA's Cheung traced Shikhman's electronic trail to two personal computers belonging to friends in Sanford Hall and three other computers in the dorm's lab. A dorm monitor testified that he found Shikhman in the computer lab in possession of a missing key to the lab, after its midnight closing time.
Using keywords including Shikhman's Internet address, Cheung located e-mails in hard-drive files of the five computers Shikhman used. Cheung also found a message that Shikhman sent to a hacker Web site, asking for help in cracking O'Donnell's Internet password. Also discovered was a credit card payment Shikhman made to the hacker who got her password for him. Cheung noted that even if e-mails are deleted, they often remain and can be retrieved from a computer's hard-drive storage.
At Shikhman's sentencing, O'Donnell told District Judge Philip Bush how the harassment affected her.
"I went through nights when I would have to go check behind closet doors before I could go to sleep," she testified.
"It was surprisingly personal," she added in a later interview. "It is amazing how much someone can toy with your e-mail accounts through the Internet. It is a scary feeling. ... One incident interrupted my entire life."
Bush sentenced Shikhman to 15 days of community service, two years of probation and ordered him to have no contact with O'Donnell. His probation agent will monitor him to ensure he has only two e-mail addresses and visits no computer-hacking Web sites.
The advent of free, relatively anonymous e-mail, started by Yahoo and other Internet services in 1997, was "when things started to get out of hand," said Scott Stillman, a detective for the Washington County Sheriff's Department. Stillman is interim president of the two-month-old Minnesota chapter of the High Tech Crime Investigators Association, which has about 20 members. It investigates child pornography, financial fraud and other online crimes.
Stillman said anyone using free e-mail services creates an Internet name that appears on e-mails or in chatroom dialogue. But others don't know the real identity behind the name. Stillman said police can subpoena Internet service providers, such as Yahoo, but their records may be erroneous because their customers sometimes use false names when signing up for free e-mail.
Stillman said more and more law enforcement agencies are training officers to track Internet crime. He said that sophisticated software programs help find suspects. Such software "is very efficient at retrieving evidence that we can use in court," Stillman said.
Minnesota and the Midwest make up a very small share of the e-mail harassment cases handled by WHOA, which deals only with adult victims, said Hitchcock. She refers juvenile cases to Cyber Angels, another nonprofit dealing with online harassment, and other groups, she said.
She said online harassment often starts with silly chatroom arguments "that go out of control. It's Internet rage. Like road rage, anonymity has a lot to do with it," Hitchcock said. "It's a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde syndrome. They become this other person. They think by changing a few things, no one will ever think it is them."
As for O'Donnell, she has changed how she uses the Internet. She no longer has a personal Web page and said she has reduced the number of her e-mail addresses from three to one -- a more secure Web site at the University of Minnesota, which conceals her personal information.
"Don't let all your personal information be shared on the Internet," she said. "Be careful who you trust."
-- Staff Writer Pam Louwagie contributed to this report.
-- Jim Adams is at firstname.lastname@example.org .