Online Harassment Creates Cottage Industry -- Anonymity Fuels Net Stalking

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Jayne Hitchcock wanted to let other writers know about a New York agency asking for $225 to review her book, so she posted a warning on the Internet.

Before long, she was "mail bombed" with more than 200 electronic mail missives. Her name, telephone number and address appeared on racist and sex newsgroups, inviting suitors to call her or come to her home day or night.

None of this was illegal, although Maryland lawmakers have proposed a ban on anonymous messages that "annoy, abuse, torment, harass or embarrass" the recipients. Hitchcock considers it a national problem.

"If I have to go state to state to get something done, then I will," she said. "I guess they thought I'd just shut down my computer and go away."

Only a handful of states - Michigan, Alaska, Oklahoma and Wyoming - have made e-mail or Internet communications subject to the criminal laws that prohibit harassment or stalking.

It is relatively uncharted legal territory and authorities must be cautious, said James Love of the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Project on Technology, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader.

"It's one thing to say something shouldn't be permitted. It's another thing to say what the remedy should be," Love said. "A lot of annoying behavior should be protected."

Cynthia Armistead-Smathers of Atlanta believes she became a target during an e-mail discussion of advertising last June. She received nasty e-mails from the account of Richard Hillyard of Norcross, Ga., and then received messages sent through an "anonymous remailer," an online service that masks the sender's identity.

Hillyard's Internet service provider canceled his account, but Armistead-Smathers then received messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he worked. Then she got thousands of messages from men who had seen a posting of a nude woman, listing her e-mail address and offering sex during the Atlanta Olympics.

Police said there was little they could do - until she got an anonymous message from someone saying he had followed Armistead-Smathers and her 5-year-old daughter home from their post office box. Hillyard was charged with stalking.

Similar complaints have spawned a cottage industry in tracking cyberspace harassers.

Lynda Hinkle launched Women Halting Online Abuse, based in Pine Hill, N.J., after she was harassed..

The Guardian Angels, which started out patrolling New York City subways, has launched CyberAngels to help those who complain of online harassment.

The group hears from about 200 people a week. One in three faces minor problems and simply must learn to cope with rude people, said Colin Hatcher, who heads CyberAngels division from Los Angeles.

"You have to look at what's happening and ask yourself, `Is this like an argument in a bar, or is it a vendetta?"' he said.

Peter Hampton has been called both savior and vigilante for helping computer users combat online harassment from the Web Police page he operates out of his home in Fishers, Ind.

First, Hampton calls or writes and asks harassers to stop. Then he uses other methods.

"I can get nasty," said Hampton, a semiretired building contractor. "I can have 3,000 people go into his Web site and actually shut it down because the server can't handle it. We can do - let's just say `things' - to take him off the air."