Playing out sexual fantasies on Internet could pose dangers Anonymity doesn't mean activity is harmless, law enforcers say

November 05, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Thousands of Americans are role-playing secret sexual fantasies with strangers on the Internet every day -- including fantasies so dark and lurid they would scarcely have dared confess them to a close friend or psychotherapist a few years ago.

Like Sharon Lopatka -- the Hampstead woman who police say plotted her own torture and death in explicit e-mail conversations with the North Carolina man accused of killing her -- Internet users can seek electronic intimacy from the privacy of home, without taboos. And, like Lopatka, anyone wanting to test the limits of personal inhibitions can find a willing conspirator from among the millions of users who spend an hour or more each day online.

Many assume it's harmless. But Frank Clark of Tacoma, Wash. and Alfred O. Olsen of Lititz, Pa. -- a pair of cyber sleuths writing a book for police about how to investigate Internet crimes -- warn that it may not be.

Clark is an investigator for the Pierce County, Wash., prosecutor's office who specializes in Internet crime. Olsen is chief of police in Warwick Township, Pa.

'No cops, no rules'

The Internet is "total anarchy -- no cops, no rules," says Clark, a Pierce County, Wash. investigator who specializes in Internet crime. "Nobody has a handle on it. The state of Washington has about 4 1/2 million people, 5 to 10 percent of whom have serious criminal credentials. The Internet has 30 to 100 million users worldwide. I want honorable citizens to know they are very vulnerable to outlaws hanging around in their fantasies."

The usual starting points for Internet newcomers are the nearly 200 alternative sex news groups available. A click of the keyboard in the "alt.sex" new groups reveals these topics, among others: children, incest, pre-teens and teens.

Titles of many other alternative sex groups' tables of contents use the crudest terms possible to describe a particular fantasy topic.

Sex news groups often lead readers to adult-only chat rooms -- keyboard discussions in which users send and receive typed messages immediately. Members can type out sexual fantasies to each other privately while viewing what is shared within the group.

Anyone on the Internet can set up a chat group without cost through an available Internet Relay Chat server. The chat group can last a few hours and disappear or it can exist for months. The time, place and conditions for membership in private, short-range chat groups are often published in a news group.

Chat rooms

Creators of chat groups are given "godlike status" allowing them to establish passwords and determine who they will let in and who they won't, Clark says. "You can click on a site and they ask you a question. If they like the answer, you're in. If not, you're out."

Clark was involved in an investigation that led to the arrest of 16 men from nine states and three foreign countries charged with sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl while others looked on through the use of an Internet chat room.

According to prosecutors, two California members of a chat group called the Orchid Club used a digital camera last spring to transmit pictures of the abuse to the 14 members around the world. As members viewed the pictures, they typed in suggestions about the kinds of abuse they wanted the California men to perform on the child next, prosecutors say.

A San Jose, Calif. judge put a gag order on the case July 18.

Olsen, the Pennsylvania police chief who is Clark's co-author, says one of his concerns is that Internet users can wander into dark places on the Internet without being aware of the dangers.

Increasingly, people in adult-only chat rooms on the Internet and at a major services such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy are making personal contact with the person behind the keyboard. And, he said, with no guarantee the person met in cyberspace is in any way similar to the real person.

Perhaps more frightening is that Internet users can be easily found and identified by strangers, Olsen said.

Easy to find people

Olsen used Internet tools readily available to anyone to find out whether he could track an undercover police officer friend in New Jersey who had gone to great lengths to protect his privacy.

"Within 15 minutes, using just a last name and initial, I was able to find his address, wife's name, unlisted phone number, e-mail address and print out a map of his neighborhood with his house marked with an X," Olsen said.

The authors agree that the Internet is far more than a place to express sexual fantasies. They believe it has unlimited potential for good as well. "It is the most important human creation ever," Clark says. "It's like electricity or the light bulb."

Most users would agree. It is the most comprehensive source of information, knowledge and entertainment in the world -- all at the touch of a fingertip, and at bargain prices. It is free to most educators and students and is available to the public in Maryland for as little as $50 a year from some libraries.

There are dangers, but that is not a call to abandon the Internet, the authors say. Indeed, "anyone who doesn't use it will be left behind," Clark predicts.

But use the same caution in cyberspace that would be used in real life, he says.

"Use common sense. Don't provide personal information to people you don't know anything about. If a stranger solicits you, be wary. When in doubt, choose suspicion over trust."

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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