E-mail threat causes uproar Ominous message appears on thousands of computer screens

Received as far as France

Sender named in note evidently a victim of cyberspace prank

July 03, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The note began appearing on thousands of computer screens across the country Wednesday: "Hello, my name is Andy. I know where you live and I know where your kids sleep. If you don't call me within 24 hours I'm going to kill your kids."

The e-mail threat -- received by at least 50 people in Maryland and by Internet subscribers in Canada and France -- was followed by a phone number for a 15-year-old boy named Andy in the Greenville, S.C., area.

The FBI, which had agents in several states working on the case, said yesterday that the threat did not originate from the boy's computer, although his e-mail password might have been compromised.

By yesterday, after answering scores of angry calls from people who had gotten the message, the family had changed its phone number. The boy's parents -- who were not identified by police -- said they think their son might have offended someone he met in a computer chat room who then retaliated by sending the note.

"When people turned on their computers [Wednesday morning], that message was waiting for them. I don't think the threat was intended for any one person," said Charles Sheppard, an FBI spokesman in South Carolina. "I think anyone who reads the note can determine for themselves the level of threat."

Although the note is being handled as an interstate threat against someone's life -- punishable by up to five years in prison -- investigators characterized it as a cyberspace version of a prank phone call.

America Online, the Internet provider through which the e-mail was sent, terminated the account that originated the note. The complaints stopped after that, the FBI said. It was unclear last night whether the person who sent the note had stolen Andy's password or had launched the massive mailing with the boy's phone number attached.

There were no arrests last night in the incident, which came a day after a Manhattan boy pleaded guilty to stealing more than 500 passwords from America Online subscribers. That case is unrelated to the threats.

"We're helping the FBI trace the responsible party," said John D. Ryan, an attorney for AOL. "It's too early to tell with any certainty that the account the message was sent through was compromised by a third party."

In 1997, AOL began warning its subscribers of "Trojan Horse" ploys in which Internet users are offered something for free if they download files attached to junk e-mail.

Codes in those files are capable of ferreting out private passwords and shipping them back to the person who posted the offer.

"These are not [always] novel or sophisticated measures that are used," Ryan said. "It's a question of educating users not to give out personal or password information. The fact that the message itself contained [the boy's] first name and telephone number suggests the information was revealed. It's not a sophisticated hacker involved."

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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