Caught in the Web
The harassment started on December 21. Jayne Hitchcock and husband Chris were hosting a holiday dinner for friends when they began receiving a deluge of mysterious phone calls. Some were hang-ups, but others were odd-"Loverboy" calling collect from somewhere; a student from Germany wanting, he said in halting English, to discuss his "sexual fantasies.""It became terrifying," Hitchcock, an author who lives in Crofton, Maryland, says. "We had no idea what was going on." Another phone call provided a clue: "Do you know your name is being 'spammed' on sex ads all over the Usenet?" Hitchcock revved up her computer and went searching in the Internet's Usenet area, home to thousands of discussion "newsgroups" in which people read and answer messages from others with similar interests. It didn't take long to find hundreds of ads under her name, with her home address and phone number attached, seeking "macho/sadistic interaction, including lovebites and indiscriminate scratches. Stop by my house. Will take your calls day or night. . . .""It was hell," she says. "The phone rang constantly. Meanwhile, we worried that these sex maniacs might drop by."The Net is often the dueling ground for "flame wars"-stinging exchanges of sarcasm or insults-but what was happening to Hitchcock was different: a kind of cyberstalking, directed at her. Around the time she discovered the sex ads, she also began getting blistering E-mails, responses to inflammatory messages that had gone out on the Net under her name. Department heads at the University of Maryland, where Hitchcock works as a teaching assistant, received insults and resignation notices with her on-line "signature." Her E-mail address at home was "mailbombed" with hundreds of nonsensical messages designed to short-circuit her account; so were the accounts of her husband and book agent. Who was doing this, and why? Hitchcock-who has written or collaborated on a children's book, a novel, and several nonfiction books about Okinawa, where she formerly lived-immediately suspected a literary agency she had criticized in misc.writing newsgroup, an on-line gathering place for writers to which Hitchcock was a frequent visitor. But to interest law-enforcement authorities or consider a civil suit, she had to have more than a suspicion. So she formed an on-line posse of sorts-fellow denizens of misc.writing, and a few expert cybersleuths who followed the information superhighway to the Woodside Literary Agency, paving the way for a suit Hitchcock filed against the agency earlier this month.Woodside first popped up in misc.writing in January 1996, when it broadcast an ad to hundreds of diverse newsgroups, including rec.pet.cats, alt.business, sci.med.diseases.lyme, and even alt.binaries.pictures.lesbians, soliciting "new authors for publication, re: fiction and non-fiction (all kinds), advances from publishers as high as 50,000 dollars." The agency touted its "offices from New York City to Florida," and stated it would handle "magazine articles (publishers paying as high as 1,000 dollars), poems, and screenplays." To the misc.writing crowd, who knew something about publishing, the Woodside post smelled funny: Why advertise when most agencies have more applicants than they can handle? What agent wants poems at a time when the poetry market is so lousy that most poets can't even give their work away? And hadn't agents stopped handling magazine articles decades ago? The writers posted these and other questions, and E-mailed copies to Woodside, which did not reply. But they did start getting reports from people who'd answered the ads and found out Woodside was asking applicants for a payment to take a look at their work. The practice is not illegal but is understandably unpopular with writers; the Internet Directory of Literary Agents, a service of the WritersNet Web site, recently restricted its listings to agents that do not charge such fees. When the Woodside ads started appearing, Hitchcock-having returned to the States from Japan about six months previous-was shopping for an agent. She sent Woodside a writing sample, and received a letter of acceptance asking for a full manuscript and a $75 "reading and evaluation fee," according to the lawsuit she filed against the firm earlier this month. To determine whether the response was typical, she applied to Woodside again, using her maiden name, Doyle; this time she was asked for $150, the suit states. Hitchcock says she was infuriated by the response. "Legitimate agents don't ask for up-front fees, they make a percentage when they sell your writing," she says. "A phony agent is worse than no agent, because they don't just steal your money, they also steal your dreams." A Woodside employee said the company would have no comment beyond the following statement: "On the advice of counsel, the Woodside Literary Agency is not responding at this time to the allegations of Jayne Hitchcock, except to say that they are false and that it is Hitchcock who has harassed and libeled the agency for several months. The Woodside Literary Agency has hired a lawyer specializing in computer law." he woman would not identify any of the company's principals or comment further. Hitchcock and other writers began issuing warnings and complaining to Woodside's Internet service provider (ISP). It wasn't easy-by Hitchcock's count Woodside posted more than 8,100 ads last year under a legion of unassuming names (including John Lawrence, James Leonard, Dr. Susan Day, Alex Baker, and Ted Denver). Critics had to hunt down the ads, post responses, and send copies to the agency's ISP. When a provider refused to service Woodside, the company hopped to new Internet companies, "spamming" ads as it went, according to Hitchcock and other misc.writing members. As a side project, some writers tried to produce something so bad that even Woodside would reject it. They all did their worst, but Wendy Chatley Green of Austin, Texas, was the only contestant who "won," getting a hand-scrawled rejection of her unbearable cyberpoetry from a "Dr. Susan Day." Everyone else-even "Kiki Rothschild," who proposed a neo-Nazi novel called Even Hitler Got the Blues-received an acceptance letter and a request for a $150 reading fee.Hitchcock was just one of many writers challenging Woodside's ads. But she was the only one targeted by a series of posts, mainly in the misc.writing newsgroup. The flames were sent under several different names but all carried the Woodside E-mail address. The postings ranged from the cryptic- "FART!" read one in its entirety-to the oddly baroque: "How bitter are sour grapes. Be it known that all who attack literary agents have in 99% of the time been rejected, so they bite their own tail, and cry, cry, cry." Others were more ominous: "HITCHCOCK, PLEASE STOP. DON'T CALL THE AGENCY COLLECT ANYMORE. THEY KNOW ABOUT YOU. IT'S AN OBSESSION. I'M REALLY NOT INTERESTED IN YOU. . . ." repeated over and over again. The agency used the newsgroup to publicly threaten to sue Hitchcock; it also posted claims in group after group that she was a pornographer who was bitter because Woodside had rejected her.The lawsuit threat prompted Hitchcock to consult an attorney. He began preparing a case, and also began forwarding copies of relevant Woodside-related posts to the New York Attorney General's Office; according to her lawsuit, that state's Bureau of Consumer Frauds and Protection is investigating the company.Shortly before the holidays came indications that Woodside may have found a way to post its advertising under apparently phony E-mail addresses. (Messages sent to those addresses bounced back to the sender, and callers to the ISPs listed in the message headers were told the Woodside accounts had already been closed.) This had the effect of routing complaints about the agency to the wrong mailboxes and ISPs; presumably it would do the same to queries from interested writers, but by this time Woodside's ads were directing applicants to send submissions by written mail rather than electronically. Hitchcock claims that a few weeks later the agency began using the same phony-address technique to post messages in her name. "Of course, it is not so difficult to do with some software, so that was not anything like direct proof" of Woodside's involvement, she says. As the harassment continued, Hitchcock contacted the FBI; an agent was assigned to look into her case, but that didn't solve the immediate problem of the phone calls and phony posts. She changed her E-mail address, and appealed to Usenet friends all over North America and Europe, most of whom she has never met face to face, to help her out. A small group began a back-channel mailing list to communicate by E-mail and coordinate its efforts. (Author's note: As a misc.writing participant and one of those who had challenged Woodside to back up its claims, I was privy to those back-channel communications.)The first priority was damage control. Misc.writing members fanned out across Usenet, hunting down phony Hitchcock posts and putting up corrections. They contacted a newsgroup concerned with abuse of the Net and recruited Chris Lewis, a highly regarded computer-security expert from Ottawa who helped develop software that searches out and destroys spam posts. Lewis unleashed the "cancelbot" software on the phony Hitchcock posts and on the new round of Woodside ads.At the same time, members of the posse were trying to figure out who was behind Woodside. Amateur sleuths in the group checked phone records on the Internet and found that phones at two of the three addresses on Woodside ads-one in New York State and one in Florida-were listed under the same name. A misc.writing colleague from New York checked with the Department of Motor Vehicles there and discovered that a vehicle parked in front of the third address was also registered in that name. Other cyberdetectives from misc.writing got into the act. Sally Towse, an amateur Internet sleuth from Saratoga, California, sifted through the phony Hitchcock posts and extracted certain esoteric information. She ran that data through a search engine and found a perfect match with the Woodside posts: Both were sent using a type of "x-mailer" software that is outdated and rarely used, and both came through the same New York-based Internet supplier, a company called IDT. "Of the zillions (it seems . . . but really not that many) of posts I checked," she reported to the group, "no one, except Woodside and the forging spammer, had that x-mailer-type AND used IDT in New York for posts."Stan Kalisch III, a spam-canceling colleague of Chris Lewis, found a further clue. While canceling posts, he ran across a curious anomaly in the groups named alt.culture.usenet, alt.society.anarchy, and talk.origins: the standard Woodside advertisement, posted from the x-mailer software, but with Hitchcock's name and E-mail address attached to the message headers at top. Those working on the mystery theorized that someone at Woodside posted phony Hitchcock messages and then the agency's ads-but neglected to replace Hitchcock's address. As Lewis wrote to the group, "[W]hat appears to be a normal Woodside advertisement appears to be coming from the same account that was forging the Hitchcock stuff." He added that only by subpoenaing IDT's records would the question be answered for sure. That discovery was enough for Hitchcock's attorney, John Young of New York. On January 13, he filed a suit in U.S. District Court Eastern District of New York, naming as defendants any person "doing business as Woodside Literary Agency." The suit claims the company harassed and endangered Hitchcock and seeks punitive damages totaling $10 million, plus compensatory damages.The FBI has interviewed Hitchcock; Larry Faust of the Baltimore FBI office says the Bureau is investigating the case, but no criminal charges had been leveled as of January 24. Young maintains that Woodside's alleged actions could violate mail and wire-fraud statutes. Hitchcock has a new, unlisted phone number, but she still gets one or two scary calls a day via her fax phone. And strange mail has started arriving-a Forbes subscription and two packages from record companies, all unordered, were delivered to her home January 22. And then there was a plain brown package with a Long Island postmark but a return address that didn't match. Hitchcock, jittery, called the police, who instructed her to leave her house immediately. When the police arrived, they inspected the parcel closely and discovered it was a package of incense. "When," Hitchcock sighs, "is it going to end?"