Abuse of Usenet: How It All Began

If you have been following this story, go directly to the most recent update.

This story began in January of 1996 with an apparently innocuous, but inappropriate ad posted to the Usenet newsgroup misc.writing. The ad was for a literary agency (a company which would represent writers trying to find publishers). Literary representation is a legitimate business, but the ad was posted in a section of Usenet where ads are heavily frowned upon.

Jayne Hitchcock, not knowing anything about this agency, telephoned Woodside and talked to "James Leonard," then sent in a book proposal. Within a week she got a response raving about her "professional" proposal and asking for a $75 reading fee. She knew this was not the norm for a literary agent.

In fact, the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives) prohibits any of its members from charging reading fees of any kind.

Note: A checklist, canon of ethics and a list of member agents of AAR are available on their site.

Hitchcock wrote back to Woodside and reminded them they did not mention fees of any kind in their post or the phone call she placed to them. She got her book proposal back. At the same time, she received an anonymous e-mail claiming "the owner of Woodside worked out of his house, didn't have a real office and had checks made out to him personally and not the business, plus the agency hadn't published anything that he knew of."

In April of 1996, posts began to appear in misc.writing warning others that the Woodside Literary Agency seemed to be performing in ways not typical of a literary agent in the United States. In particular, prospective writers were asked for reading fees and if they paid they were asked for additional fees for various purposes. This practice is considered highly unusual in the trade, perhaps even unethical, although there appeared to be no illegal activity involved.

A number of regular readers of misc.writing held a contest. They sent the worst writing they could to the Woodside Literary Agency. All but one were told they were in the exclusive 5% accepted by the agency and then were asked for money.

In April of 1996, a groundswell of opposition to Mr. Leonard (or Lawrence) began to appear, including posts from Jack Mingo and Jayne Hitchcock (among others) warning that Woodside had been informally investigated and appeared suspect. Woodside took an opportunity to respond, writing a post in misc.writing and sending e-mail to Mingo and Hitchcock. At this point Woodside, et al, began to use a range of AOL, Prodigy, Netcom and other e-mail accounts to post hundreds of messages, nearly all of them copies of their usual ad. This is commonly called spam. ISPs (Internet Service Providers) started canceling the spam ads and disabled the accounts.

In August, Doctor-Day@msn.com (James Leonard) posted a message about Jack Mingo, claiming

"His manuscript has been rejected by all literary agencies. He now attacks all agencies and tries blocking all aspiring writers from seeking out any agency's help. Good writing takes honesty, not sounding good at all costs. If you don't listen attentively to what he has to say, he will try stepping on you like a bug. Stay clear."

What "Doctor-Day" claimed about Mingo being rejected can easily be refuted by looking for Mingo in Books in Print. "Doctor-Day" also posted a claim that a libel suit had been filed against Mingo, but none had.

The story continues after the following important message

A legal fund has been set up for Jayne Hitchcock to cover her legal expenses. Her lawyer is working on a contingency basis, but court fees, deposition fees, etc. must be paid and are overwhelming for her. Help Jayne Hitchcock fight back and contribute to the H.E.L.P. Fund today!

Each person who contributes will receive a personal thank you from Jayne Hitchcock.

The number of complaints that appeared in misc.writing led Jayne Hitchcock to further investigate to see if Woodside was indeed still asking for reading fees. Posing as Anne Doyle, she sent a query e-mail to Woodside. James Leonard replied with their standard "ad." She then sent what she thought was an awful first chapter of a book "Anne Doyle" wanted to get published. "Anne" got a response, again within just a week, the same letter Jayne Hitchcock had received, now requesting a $150 reading fee.

"Anne" tried to contact Woodside via e-mail requesting that the reading fee be lowered and never got a reply other than the standard "ad" they'd been spamming on the net. Anne did receive a follow-up letter in October of 1996 from a Dr. Richard Bell asking again for the money.

In early December of 1996, things took an ugly turn when Woodside apparently began using an account at IDT to forge posts so that they appeared to come from Jayne Hitchcock's email address. The text of these postings was clearly intended to cause a massive response to the supposed poster. These spams began appearing dozens of times per day many newsgroups, including misc.writing. A group of volunteers, including network administrators and others, began an active campaign to stop the spam. Woodside apparently took advantage of the ease with which an internet email account can be obtained and posted the forgeries from several different accounts. The worst forgery contained Jayne Hitchcock's actual phone number and address and claimed she was interested in sado-masochistic sexual fantasies.

Also in December, someone e-mailbombed Jayne Hitchcock, a process by which a huge number of e-mail messages are sent to an account in the hope of making it useless. This also appears to be the work of the same people. The mailbombing was expanded to include Jayne's husband, her actual literary agent, Red Stone Literary Services, and the University of Maryland University College, where she works.

By 14 January 1997 most of the forgeries had been stopped, but the spam continues to this day. On 13 January 1997, Jayne Hitchcock's lawyer filed an aggravated harrassment suit against Woodside Literary Agency, et al., in New York Eastern District State Court. (The nature of the civil laws require the suit be filed in the jurisdiction in which the defendant does business.)

On 22 January 1997, papers were served at the place of business of the "Woodside Literary Agency" in Woodside, New York.

Hitchcock's lawyer was notified on 7 February 1997 by an attorney representing two of the defendants, James Leonard and Ursula Sprachman. NOTICE: Please see new lawyer info.

Jayne Hitchcock also became the victim of a real mail hoax: A wide range of magazine and CD club membership/subscriptions were forged in her name and the name of her husband and were mailed to her home. There were several orders placed with The Hamilton Collection, who promptly canceled the orders and put a flag on the Hitchcocks address against future bogus orders.

Since harassing Jayne Hitchcock, Woodside has been kicked off of dozens more Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for spamming their usual "ad," including IBM, IDT, Prodigy, AOL and Compuserve. One account was used to focus on the newsgroup misc.writing, with over 200 posts spammed to that single newsgroup in less than two days. Of these, quite a few were the anti-spam spam, which reappeared on misc.writing on 28 March 1997 and again in April 1997.

In addition, Jack Mingo became a target of Woodside: Two FBI agents went to Mingo’s home after Ursula Sprachman called and claimed Mingo made a death threat against her. Here’s a recap from Mingo:

"On Wednesday, February 26, as the Express was putting my story to bed ( a newspaper in Oakland, California), I was visited at my home by two FBI agents from the Oakland bureau. I had called the Woodside Literary Agency's number over the previous weekend to ask once again for any comments on the story. As I identified myself to the answering machine and told why I was calling, the squeal of feedback suddenly interrupt as a woman -- to my ear, the same one I had talked to earlier -- picked up and shouted "Foch you!" before hanging up. From that one encounter, Ursula Sprachman had -- according to Thomas Bohlke, one of the agents -- put in a complaint to the NY attorney general's office that I told her "you can run but you can't hide" and had threatened to hire a hitman to have her killed.
The G-men seemed to be satisfied once I explained it to them, gave them a copy of the LA Times story (Mingo had written), and even played them a tape of my only phone call this month to the Woodside "agency," asking for an official comment to put in a news story in my local alternative weekly this week. (Even the agents seemed to be amused by the sound of me asking a professional, droning newsguy question and being interrupted by "FOCH YOU!" and a hangup from Sprachman.)
When I called the FBI agent later by phone, I asked if there were any penalties for making false claims of this nature, and if there's anything I can do to encourage them to go forward and do so. He was somewhat non-committal.

Jack (And to think that I thought at first, what with the suits and ties in the morning, that they were Jehovah's Witnesses) Mingo"

Since then, Woodside has continued to post odd messages about Jack Mingo. You can go to Deja News and do a Power Search on the Woodside Literary Agency or Jack Mingo.

On 3 March 1997 Woodside's Lawyer, Mr. Horowitz, served a motion on behalf of defendants James Leonard and Ursula Sprachman asking that the court dismiss the action. The motion, which is too voluminous to reproduce here (but we would gladly do so if the defendants lawyer were to provide it on a diskette or in ASCII text format), claims the complaint is "woefully inadequate for numerous reasons" and fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; and that, in any event, its service upon those defendants was not made in a proper manner as specified in the applicable rules.

A briefing schedule was established, under which plaintiff's papers in opposition were served by 31 March 1997 and all papers on the motion were submitted to U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon on 10 April 1997.

Jayne Hitchcock spent 5 March 1997 at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, testifying on behalf of House Bill 778 which would punish e-mail harassers with a $500 fine and/or up to three years in prison. The bill passed the House of Delegates unopposed, 138-0, but did not pass the Senate level. Hitchcock testified again on behalf of this bill, amended, in January of 1998. One small victory for Jayne Hitchcock and the beginning of a crusade to get similar laws passed in other states and nationally, if possible.

As reported by the Maryland State Police to Jayne Hitchcock and her lawyer:
A woman identifying herself as Ursula Sprachman called the Maryland State Police and complained about the Jayne Hitchcock HELP Fund. This woman claimed the HELP Fund was a fraud, that people were getting ripped off and the money was just going to help Jayne Hitchcock sue her (Sprachmann) and to line Jayne Hitchcock's pockets. The Maryland State Police Sergeant who spoke to the woman claims he told Sprachmann he didn't see anything wrong with the HELP Fund. He mentioned that even President Clinton has a legal expense fund set up for him. The Sergeant then invited Sprachmann to have her lawyer or anybody who thought they'd been "ripped off" call him back. Neither her lawyer nor any purported "victims" have called.

In addition, Sprachman contacted the Maryland State Attorney General and the Baltimore Computer Crimes Bureau of the FBI with the same complaint about the HELP Fund. The complaint was forwarded to the Annapolis Bureau FBI Agent assigned to Jayne Hitchcock's case. Special Agent Murphy promptly placed the complaint in Jayne Hitchcock's case file.

On 18 April 1997 at around 5 p.m. (E.S.T.), Jayne Hitchcock's lawyer, John A. Young, received a disturbing phone call at his home. Both Atty. Young and his wife picked up the phone at the same time, in different rooms. A man asked for 'John Young' in an officious manner, so Mrs. Young hung up and let her husband take the call.

"The man then asked if I were John Young and, after I confirmed that, asked if I were handling the case for Miss Hitchcock," Atty. Young relates. "After I also confirmed that, he said to me, 'You'd better drop that case -- or I'll come and fuckin' kill you.' When I asked 'And who might you be?' I got a click."

Atty. Young reported the incident to authorities, including his local police precinct and the FBI, and advised Jayne Hitchcock that he is not about to drop her case.
Jayne Hitchcock also alerted the Maryland State Police and her local police department, as well as the FBI.

Jayne Hitchcock became the target of a spate of spams allegedly from the Woodside Literary Agency questioning the H.E.L.P. Fund. Another group of spams target Jayne Hitchcock, Jack Mingo, "et al." There are also many people supporting Jayne Hitchcock who received unwanted e-mails from the Woodside Literary Agency.

A week after appearing on the television show "Unsolved Mysteries," Jayne Hitchcock received good news from her lawyer on 13 May 1997:
"Got a copy of an affidavit in the mail today -- by John Lawrence, on behalf of himself and The Woodside Literary Agency. He says he lives on the first floor at the Woodside Literary Agency location in Woodside, New York and claims that: 'I only recently learned from Ursula Sprachman about the above captured (sic) action against me, ...'
The affidavit arrived by certified mail in an envelope with Woodside's return address printed on it, and with no other accompanying papers. It looks like it was sent to the court and recites at the end that copies are being sent to Horowitz (lawyer for Sprachmann and Leonard) and to me 'certified mail.'
The affidavit claims that Lawrence is appearing 'pro se', which is legalese for 'representing himself.' It also claims he is representing Woodside 'pro se,' which is logically impossible unless, perhaps, he claims that Woodside is a sole proprietorship owned entirely by him."

A person named Scott Holstad noted in the May 1997 issue of his electronic newsletter Tek Thots the following information: "Since I'm ranting about spam, try this out. Familiar with the notorious Woodside Literary Agency spams? If not, be glad. These creeps have spammed the entire Usenet with bogus ads seeking writers for publication. People who send manuscripts are typically accepted, and then cash is demanded, repeatedly, for various reasons.
Well, this week (week of 12 May 1997), a friend of mine who is a security-type for an ISP tried contacting them numerous times to beg them to quit spamming through this particular ISP (it was being routed through illegally). What happens? Death threat! I kid you not. Well, the NYP