The Washington Times Culture, etc.

Published in Washington, D.C.           5am -- February 19, 1998 

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Author's real-life story is cyberspace nightmare

By Virginia McCord

Jayne Hitchcock's stalker comes to her home every day, sneaking in through a computer modem and refusing to leave.
Mrs. Hitchcock, a children's book author, is one of the growing number of Internet users who have had their lives turned upside down by an on-line "stalker."
     "They just haven't stopped," she says. "Just when I think they cannot top what they have done, they do something new."
     It all started early in 1995, when Mrs. Hitchcock returned to Crofton, Md., from Japan, where her husband had been stationed with the Marines. Deciding that she needed a book agent in the United States, she hit the Internet to look for one. There, she came across several advertisements for New York-based Woodside Literary Agency.
     It looked promising, so Mrs. Hitchcock called the agency, run by Ursula Sprachtman and James Leonard. After offering her their services, Woodside asked Mrs. Hitchcock to pay an initial fee.
     Having published several books, Mrs. Hitchcock knew that many literary agents do not charge an upfront fee merely to read a manuscript. Woodside's method prompted her to question the agency, and she decided to post warnings to other authors on the Internet.
     Mrs. Hitchcock says she remembers what it was like to be a hopeful writer and felt that it was her duty to warn amateur writers.
     Soon after, Mrs. Hitchcock began receiving as many as 20 calls a day, most of which were from people calling in response to sex-related advertisements posted on the Web.
     "The people were basically calling me for sex," Mrs. Hitchcock says.
     Then a friend told Mrs. Hitchcock he had seen her name in Internet ads saying she is a pornographer and was looking for sexual partners. She looked up the ads and says she tracked her cyberstalker to the Woodside Agency.
     About the same time, Mrs. Hitchcock says, Woodside executives threatened her with a lawsuit, claiming her Internet warnings were libelous and ruining their business.
     Because of the threat and her own cybersleuthing, she concluded Woodside was the source of the sex-related ads. Mrs. Hitchcock sued Woodside Literary Agency in January 1997 for harassment, asking for punitive damages of $10 million.
     "They have not been able to provide us with information that proves they have published anything," Mrs. Hitchcock says. "This leads people to believe that, regardless of the fees they have received from their clients, they have done no publishing."
     Woodside did not return calls from The Washington Times asking for comment.
     But the company addressed Mrs. Hitchcock's suit directly after she was asked to appear last May 2 on "Unsolved Mysteries," a TV show that examines strange and unique happenings.
     Woodside faxed the producer a letter to be read on the show.
     "You want to know more of the person on your show," the letter says. "It is Hitchcock who has harassed and maligned us for over a year."
     At the end of the fax, Woodside asked that "Unsolved Mysteries" read it on air "without alterations."
     "We are starting legal actions against a newspaper which published a Hitchcock article without getting our side of the story and libeled this agency to an unacceptable degree," Woodside wrote.
     The show decided not to read the fax on the program. "'Unsolved Mysteries' just laughed at the fax," Mrs. Hitchcock says.
     The fax was the straw that broke the camel's back. She felt she needed some type of protection, Mrs. Hitchcock says.
     In response, Mrs. Hitchcock has changed her phone number frequently and purchased a caller-ID box that identifies the number and name of most incoming calls to screen every call that enters her home. Even after she got the unlisted phone number, she says, Woodside managed to track her down.
     "They sent a letter to the University of Maryland University College, where I work, requesting information about me," Mrs. Hitchcock says.
     Shortly after Mrs. Hitchcock filed suit, the attorney general of New York also filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York for the County of New York against Woodside.
     New York Assistant Attorney General Eric A. Wenger was assigned to the case.
     "The focus of the lawsuit is about fraud," Mr. Wenger says. "It's about consumers who paid for literary services they did not get."
     More than 20 consumers are represented in the suit, each having lost between $75 and $400 to Woodside. The suit will ask for $100,000 in damages to pay back consumers.
     Meanwhile, Mrs. Hitchcock says, Woodside has stopped advertising on the Internet.
     Her lawyer, John Young, of Brooklyn, and a reporter who covered Mrs. Hitchcock's story say they have received death threats.
     Mr. Young says a male caller informed him that, "You better back out [of the case] or I am going to [expletive] kill you."
     Jack Mingo, a free-lance writer who lives in Almeda, Calif., published stories about Woodside in several papers, including the Los Angeles Times, Phoenix New Times, and the Baltimore City Paper.
     "Woodside told the FBI I had threatened to slit their throats," Mr. Mingo says. "There is this element of ruthlessness and going beyond what is necessary to get what they want."
     Two FBI agents visited Mr. Mingo's home and questioned him, he says. Because he records all of his interviews, Mr. Mingo could prove to the FBI that he had not threatened Woodside.
     Two weeks ago, Mrs. Hitchcock testified before the Maryland House of Delegates in support of a bill that would punish e-mail harassers.
     "Usually, a lot of the harassment begins through e-mail," she told legislators.
     According to America Online, one of the first on-line services, harassment over the Internet occurs on a regular basis.
     "Every day someone complains about bad language in the chat rooms or unsolicited e-mails," AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose says.
     "Because the on-line world is not immune to people with less than good intentions, we have very clear channels with law enforcement," she says. "Although we have a system that can block e-mails, users must continue to exercise caution and not give out personal information."
     So far, Woodside has made two motions to dismiss the Mrs. Hitchcock's case, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
     "The chances that they will be able to pay any of the [damages] amount are very small," Mr. Young says. "We just hope for some vindication and relief for Jayne and her family."

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