Untitled by Ingrid Neuhofer Dohm

Safety Online

Loretta Kemsley

Cyberspace rape. This is the way women are describing the sexual harassment received through their modems.

"Can you believe this came across my e-mail address?, writes one correspondent. "Does my name sound like a gay man's?"

"Jamie is 25 yo, blond hair, blue eyes, 6ft, 174lb, slim, smooth body, clean shaven, very handsome. Scandinavian type, straight looking,non camp...tight bottom and hungry mouth and of course an unhurried and safe service. $125 for up to 2 hours plus taxi or travel expenses."

Another woman suddenly began receiving unwanted and sexually explicit email through her personal web page, "They put me on this page (Babes on The Web), along with a friend of mine. Basically, it's complete harassment. If you take your picture off from your pages, he'll agree take off the link to your page from his. So he forces women to alter their pages in order to avoid overt harassment from some disgusting people. Another friend of mine got put on his pages and is still on. "

This was in reference to an unauthorized link from the now defunct web site, Babes on the Web. However, a recent search by Infoseek still turned up this listing by the web site's owner, Robert M. Toups, Jr., "Not what you think! Babes on the Web is a salute to female brains and ingenuity on the internet."

How do they get our information? When we fill out forms, register our computers and software, join lists, enter chat rooms, host personal web pages, even when we search the net, we allow access to our personal information, not knowing how it will be used by total strangers.

Some companies are sophisticated about capturing our information without our knowledge. InfoSpace, Yahoo, and Database America give anybody access to listed addresses and telephone numbers. They sell data about your income, equipment you use, even the age and gender of your children. And the cost to the purchaser is negligable:

"Email America Corp. specializes in providing bulk email lists for your advertising use. Over the past year we have been able to develop a list of over 20 million email addresses covering the internet. ..Using simple text edit routines, you can extract the email addresses and import them into your address book. ..The email addresses come with the user's name and date online...We are offering you 5 MILLION of these same addresses in an easy to use plain ascii text format for only $99! For more information CALL Email America Corp. (310) 967-4070! or write to (ema)"

The reader who sent in this alert described herself as scared, "I'm going to send an e-mail asking them to remove my address from their list and send me confirmation. I can't think of what else to do. I wouldn't send them anything by snail mail because I don't want to give them my home address for free. I feel so powerless in the face of something like this."

To protect your privacy from a business conglomerate, cyber stalker or crazy ex, you have to be extremely aware and cautious. Use a PO Box for all snail mail, and don't give information to anyone who doesn't really need it. 800 numbers can access your telephone number, even if you have call blocking. If you want to call an 800 number, do so from work or have an operator make the connection. Don't talk about your family by name online. Anywhere. When you fill out online forms, write to the webmaster if the information is too personal or refuse to fill it out (salary, real name, etc.). On print forms, write a mini-contract denying them the ability to sell the information without express written permission.

"Cookies" are java instructions used by many web sites and browsers to collect your personal information. The October, 1996 issue of Scientific American contained this advice, "For computer users who dislike the idea that Web site operators can track their repeat visits through "cookie" technology, there are several ways to block the software from collecting or relaying that information. PrivNet's Internet Fast Forward prevents the browser from sending cookies. The program can also block those annoying little ad banners, eliminating the time it takes to download them. Anonymizer functions more as a proxy service -- the information is not given out unless the user grants permission. "Surfing feels anonymous, like reading a newspaper," says Anonymizer's creator, "but it's not. What Netscape needs is a feature saying, `Look, I never want to see another cookie again.'"

Microsoft Internet Explorer, a browser which is a main rival of Netscape, does contain a feature for turning off the cookies completely, thus refusing all informational probes.

Anonymizer's web site states, "Many people surf the web under the illusion that their actions are private and anonymous. Unfortunately, it isn't so. Every time you visit a site, you leave a calling card that reveals where you're coming from, what kind of computer you have, and other details. Most sites keep logs of all your visits. In many cases, this logging may constitute a violation of your privacy. Our "anonymizer" service allows you to surf the web without revealing any personal information. It is fast, it is easy, and it is free."

Another reader, who plays sci fi games, is also afraid to complain, but this time the culprit is very personal and abusive. "This guy comes on and every post he makes is foul, sexually explicit, racist, and borders on abusive. He never does it directly to any of the people on line, but it is so awful. This guy is downright pathological. It's like seeing horrible things on a bathroom wall, getting flashed, or getting a hit-and-run obscene phone call. I have been terrified to say anything on-line, because I have a gut feeling he'll attack me verbally, and I don't want to deal with it! I think he's dangerous. I am waffling on reporting him though, because I am afraid he or someone else will start hassling me about it on e-mail. I don't believe he can track my e-mail address through the game (I use a "handle," a phony name), but I am afraid that If I post a complaint to the comments section, it will end up on an e-mail bulletin board, and then they will see my address."

There are safe ways to complain. Create a double blind by using an anonymous email forwarding services, such as and setting up a false address. This service is free for the first three months; there are others who never charge. A form asked for your info but you can leave it blank. Your request will be accepted anyway. Use this address to send complaints and public messages. Replies will be forwarded to you from your blind email address. I tested my own and it works.

Most e-mail programs can block posts from a particular party. However, if these posts are part of a public forum, you will still see responses. A more effective strategy is to write to the webmaster at the offender's ISP and complain, using your blind address. Most will act to stop harassing mail, up to and including revoking the offender's account . Our complaining reader sent this update, after establishing a blind address: "I found the staff very courteous, prompt, and discrete. And I haven't seen that guy around since- I believe they banned him."

Turn the tables and use public access to track down a stalker or harasser. These services reveal as much about them as they do about you. Another resource is "The Stalker's Home Page". It reveals the resources a stalker can use to find you and has links to several of these services. Internet Address Finder can search by name or email address. Once the email address is located, their service reveals the listed name of the user and their service provider. Check these pages, if only to find out what information about yourself is available to the public.

A cyberwoman writes to ask, "Why do so many men really pretend to be women on the Net? There's a joke on the MUDs/MOOs that if a character describes itself as having "melon-shaped breasts" (especially if nipples are mentioned) or "sleek legs" (any hint of high heels is a giveaway) -- it's most likely a man. Are these men living out fantasies of what they want to be or of what they want women to be?"

She describes her reaction to a particular web site. "I was thinking, 'WOW, she is embodying the spirit I think women bring to the Web --shareware, community, cooperation.' But upon inspecting the site further, the plot thickened as they say... Ergh, I hate it when I meet a cool woman and she is...OH HECK TAKE A GUESS...but it is a beautiful site...A million stories in the Naked Web, this is just one of them. I guess there are enough cool women around so that it's not a crisis if they keep turning out to be men trying to be Pygmalion AND Galatea at the same time."

The web site she discussed belongs to Selena Sol ( "Los Angeles" backwards) and has an interesting discussion of cyber-transgendering, albeit from a man's perspective.

There is no way to verify who a person truly is. With millions online, it is wise to be careful of all unknown correspondents. Two sites which are excellent resources for safety online, including extensive links, are Cyberangels, a web site hosted by The Guardian Angels, which gives practical advice about online "street smarts" and Survivors of Cyberstalking, a non profit organization.

There is hope. The Detroit News reports the first conviction of a cyberpredator through current law. Mark Grossman, an attorney specializing in computer technology, has addressed this issue in his February, 1997, column in PCWorld. However, there is doubt that existing laws will be adequate, as revealed in the court's decision to dismiss charges concerning threats of sexual torture of young girls in the case of United States V. Jake Baker. Another interesting discussion of the legal issues involved can be found at The UCLA Legal Resources web site.

Preventive measures are the first step. The next is to ask our elected representatives to address these dangers with new and appropriate laws. Until they do, cyberperverts will be an unfortunate part of our cyberworld.

About Loretta Kemsley.

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