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Fighting Cyberstalking
By Skip Press

I was cyberstalked. Some anonymous person made up lies, started vicious rumors, and posted them under pseudonyms in several places, causing upset in my life.

One Saturday morning. I got an e-mail saying there was an article from a "Tacoma newspaper" posted on a newsgroup that said I was being investigated by the Attorney General of the State of Washington for posting bogus reviews of my Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriters Agents on Amazon.com. The post listed an e-mail address of a South African provider. How ridiculous, I thought.

Unfortunately, many other folks who read the fabricated "article" thought it was true. So I tracked down the publisher of the only Tacoma newspaper, got her assurance no such article was ever written, and posted it on the newsgroup. But that didn’t end it.

The "troll" was keeping busy. I learned that, at Amazon.com, several "customer comments" about my book from anonymous identities and bogus e-mail addresses were slamming my work. Further down the page were glowing reviews, some with the maximum five stars, and an Amazon.com reviewer had great things to say about the first edition of the book, but you had to scroll down the page to see the good stuff. Whoever posted the slurs knew this.

Since I hear from people around the world about that book, I sent many of them a short e-mail asking if they would post a review at Amazon. Good, bad or indifferent, that was up to them. I also posted a note under "Author Comments" at the site, explaining the situation. I listed several quotes from top people in Hollywood—the same ones used on the back cover—and left it up to the Amazon shopper to decide.

Meanwhile, back on the newsgroup, many regulars came to my defense and attacked what looked to be several people railing against me but was actually only one person—the troll. I purposely posted wounded and angry responses to elicit more posts from the offender. The disguises the troll used, from various free e-mail services, were easily unmasked, because the "headers" at the top of each tracked to the same source.

Some folks speculated that I was the troll in disguise, trying to stir up publicity for my book. Then a couple of people cited an article in New Yorker magazine on an obscure 19th century history book rated near the bottom of Amazon.com listings, bought one a day for a week by the reporter, resulting in the book’s rating jumping into the top 3,000. In short, it wouldn’t be worth my effort to fake it. Then someone who works at a real bookstore said my book was doing very well. Nevertheless, the attacks were embarrassing.

Amazon.com did not respond to my e-mail of explanation. Instead, it made things worse, pulling down all the positive reviews that came in from my friends, taking down my Author Comments, and leaving the bogus bad "reviews" up for all to see. Was Amazon hacked?

I called its legal department. I also made phone calls to America Online public relations (some of the nasty posts originated from AOL, it seemed), Earthlink, and other places. I got quick results, using the phone:

Earthlink (my ISP) was its usual Johnny-on-the-spot about handling abuses to customers. A technical specialist researched it and assured me the "troll" was not originating on Earthlink, even though he made it appear that way.

AOL PR people told me that I was not a subscriber, and therefore it could not offer much assistance. If I wanted information about any AOL member, I would have to subpoena AOL. (This is why there are newsgroups like aol.sucks.)

The Amazon legal department was quick to action, once I reached a real person on the phone. I learned that the troll had told Amazon that I had posted all the bogus interviews myself and that I was "bragging all over the Internet about it." Of course, someone there was stupid enough to believe him, not bothering to compare even Amazon’s own recommendation of my book with the anonymous cheap shots. It wasn’t hard to convince them to put the good reviews and my own Author Comments back on the site, once I sent the Amazon lawyer an e-mail swearing that I was telling the truth. I was left with the distinct feeling no one asked the troll to do the same, however.

E-mail complaints were useless. Barnesandnoble.com basically told me "We don’t give a damn" and left the two bogus reviews up on its site. Since Amazon leaves them in the dust, cybersales-wise, I didn’t pursue it.

Meanwhile, thanks to a number of friendly "detective" e-mails, and my own research, I located the troll. I got his Juno e-mail account canceled and took some other steps. Maybe that will end it, maybe not.

The country’s most famous victim of cyberstalking, Jayne Hitchcock, is someone I once derided on a newsgroup because I didn’t realize how serious her troubles were. To me, she seemed like a "Chicken Little" peeping about nothing. I subsequently found out that people had stalked her in real life, published her home address and phone number on X-rated chat groups while posing as Jayne, and generally wreaked havoc, all because she exposed a larcenous "agency" known as Woodside. The court case against them is ongoing.

Jayne has worked with the Department of Justice to fight cyberstalking, and has appeared on Good Morning, America. You can read her story at http://members.tripod.com/~cyberstalked/story.html and contribute to her HELP Fund at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/6172/help.html.

If you get cyberstalked, you’ll need cunning, real-life solutions, and friends to combat it. Just don’t expect the authorities to rush to your aid; they have too much else to do. For that to change, someone will probably have to die at the hands of a cyberstalker.

It’s easy to be an anonymous cyberstalking slug. Thankfully, the slimers always leave a trail, even when they think they have not.

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