Criminals lurk in alleys of cyberspace

April 01, 1994|By Stevan Rosenlind | Stevan Rosenlind,McClatchy News Service

Laurie Powell of North Carolina joined a national computer on-line service last year to chat about the joys and pitfalls of raising children.

Within weeks, she found herself trapped in a frightening game with an elusive cyberstalker called Vito who has threatened her life, sent her pornographic "e-mail" and may be following her around the country.

She has never met the stalker -- who, according to law-enforcement officials, may live in Fresno, Calif. but apparently has access to computers in several cities -- or even heard his voice.

But she fears her electronic nemesis could turn up in "real life" at any time.

"I am frightened," Ms. Powell says. "This guy knows my name, where I live and what I do for a living. . . . He has made it his business to find out everything about me."

Ms. Powell is one of a growing number of people who use their home computers and modems to travel the nation's information superhighway.

What they often find is that the high-tech roadways are not always paved with good intentions.

In fact, many cyberspacers, as they are sometimes called, often discover plain old-fashioned low-tech larceny -- ranging from harassment to kidnapping to murder.


* Larry Greenberg of New York could have lost his job when someone sent his boss a fax from a phony law firm accusing him of being a convicted rapist and child molester. Mr. Greenberg suspects the fax was sent by an on-line foe.

* A 14-year-old New Jersey girl was forced off the network last month after continuing to receive unwanted computer-generated sexual images of young boys.

* Evelyn McHugh, a New Jersey housewife, discovered a Chicago man was sending obscene messages in her name.

* A 14-year-old Boston boy disappeared after running away to meet a man in Texas who sent him on-line love letters and airline tickets.

With promises of high-tech romance, adventure and easily accessible information, the nation's information highway attracted millions of new users last year.

Like any place where people gather, cyberspace has its back alleys, bandits and bad neighborhoods.

"It's the new frontier," says Fresno police detective Frank Clark, who is nationally known for his computer investigations.

"And like any frontier, there's not a lot of law enforcement."

Brian Eck of Prodigy Services says he looks at the service's network of more than 3 million users as the biggest city along the information highway.

"Like any big city, there are just certain things you should do to protect yourself. . . . You just don't leave your doors unlocked," he says.

The trouble is, most on-line newcomers don't know they need to be protected, Mr. Clark and others say.

Joey Lowell of Oregon says he learned that lesson the hard way.

Mr. Lowell, a comic book trader, says he agreed while on-line to a swap with another trader for two magazines autographed by a well-known artist. The other trader sent him two forgeries in exchange.

"I tried calling [the on-line service] and the guy himself," Mr. Lowell says. "There was just nothing I could do."

Mr. Lowell, however, will continue to roam the electronic highways, which many believe will end up being the most heavily trafficked roads in the history of the world.

"The growth has been phenomenal," says Prodigy's Mr. Eck.

Since 1989, Prodigy has grown from 50,000 to more than 2 million members, and adds about 50,000 new members a month. The company processes 700,000 sign-ons daily, Mr. Eck says.

"With that kind of volume, we just can't check everything that goes on," Mr. Eck says. "The control of the boards is actually in the hands of the members."

Other major national on-line services include CompuServe, with an estimated 1.5 million subscribers; America Online, 600,000 subscribers; Genie, 400,000 subscribers, and Delphi, 80,000 subscribers.

* From Stevan in CA:

To: All:

I am a CA journalist looking for victims of cybercrime or other forms of on-line abuse . . .

* From Lewis Oppenheimer:

Subject: Advisory Stalker!!!

So you're looking for Vito, Stevan, huh? It's a good story, but the story is for sale. Why do you think he even exists?

* From Arnold Fieldman:

Subject: Saber rattle.

I wonder if Laurie Powell plans on filing the alleged suit against Vito in North Carolina or Fresno . . . but maybe she [should] find out how long and expensive a civil suit against Vito would be, Stevan.

Ms. Powell says she had no idea what she was getting into when she posted the note on a Prodigy bulletin board that ultimately drew the attention of Vito. "I was a babe in the woods," she says.

She says the stalker has harassed her on-line, electronically accosted friends, sent mass pornographic e-mail concerning her and her son, telephoned her daughter, tried to ruin her credit and has hinted he intends to harm her.

In response, Ms. Powell has joined other on-line users to try to flush out the identity of the stalker, who they believe uses multiple male and female on-line personalities.

The group has been piecing together clues and has forwarded complaints to federal law enforcement officials and to Mr. Clark.

Mr. Clark says he, too, has tracked the stalker, both on- and off-line, for months and has compiled stacks of information on his activities.

"I do know that he has violence in his background," Mr. Clark says.

Recently, the detective served a search warrant on Prodigy hoping to locate a suspect in a child pornography case that may be related to the stalker case. The information led Mr. Clark to a series of dead ends.

"One of the problems is an absolute lack of verification of information supplied by a member," Mr. Clark says. "This is getting to be an 'anything goes' situation with some of these companies."

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