Wicked Vito stalks the Net

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 1994, 12:00am

HIS name is Vito and he stalks people and messes up their lives.

Vito is not his real name, and he is not stalking people in the conventional sense. He is a real person, alright, but uses Prodigy - one of the mainstream commercial on-line services based in the United States - to harass people who use the service.

Recently, the CBS news magazine show, Eye To Eye With Connie Chung, reported an individual had used hundreds of Prodigy sign-up kits, often bought with forged credit cards, to enroll under a variety of aliases.

Vito used the kits to track down individuals on the service and send them hate mail. He posted defamatory messages on public bulletin boards on Prodigy, falsely accusing these people of such crimes as child molestation, the report said.

In one instance, Vito sent a letter to a Prodigy user's boss, accusing the user of abusing children.

He often threatened his victims, claiming to know where they lived and that he could track them down easily.

This probably may not seem surprising to many - after all, the on-line world is open to all, and there are enough stalkers in non-cyberspace to expect to find some on-line.

But what is surprising is how ineffective the law was to do anything about Vito and his abuse.

One police detective in Fresno, California covers the on-line beat, and he has been tracking Vito with a passion.

Unfortunately, he has had little help even from Prodigy, which first refused him access to its membership records to protect the privacy of other members.

After many months, Progidy gave the detective reams of almost useless data. From this, he tracked down a person whom he believed to be Vito, and raided his house.

There, he found hundreds of Prodigy sign-up kits, several computers and what many people said they thought was enough evidence.

But the District Attorney in Fresno released Vito.

What is most concerning about the case is that even with commercial services, there is effectively no way of verifying that a person is being honest with their identity on-line.

Vito even managed to impersonate the detective in electronic mail that he sent to some people, convincing them there was no investigation of Vito.

With the complete lack of control on the Internet, which, after all, represents the very life-blood of international on-line connectivity, you must wonder at what abuses are happening and will continue to occur unless effective policing is developed to ensure criminals misusing cyberspace cannot only be tracked down but also prosecuted.

Something must be done if on-line services are not going to become one more area of life in which people are scared of what awaits them around the next corner - or in the next E-mail.