Network: E-mail abuse from a woeful spell-checker

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The Independent Culture
When an e-mail titled Your Property arrived at my in-box at work, it brought a smile to my face. It was two years since we advertised our house on the Web. When it was sold soon afterwards, by more conventional means, I let the Web estate agent know, but the advert remained online. Once in a while, somebody missed the "Sold" banner and got in touch, and here was another one.

This message, however, was different. A page of bizarre insults about the house, quite a bit of random swearing, followed by an offer - would I swap the house for a night with his wife?

The author, a Mr Zachopoulos, was using an e-mail address provided by Hotmail, the free e-mail service owned by Microsoft, so there was no clue to his location. A few hours later he followed up with another message. Had I considered his more than generous offer? I decided, perhaps foolishly, to respond. I told him that I found his messages offensive, and that I would forward them to Hotmail.

The Hotmail website gave me an address for complaints about unwanted e-mail, and within minutes of sending the messages, back came a reply from their auto-respond system. There was a lot of information about how good Hotmail is at stopping misuse of their mail accounts, and a promise to reply to me as soon as possible. They never did.

The next day, Mr Zachopoulos changed his name to Mr Wrench, and came back with more streams of abuse from the same Hotmail address. Later on, another message arrived from a Carl Smith, with an e-mail address of snrmanagement@hotmail.com. He told me that the culprit, a German schoolboy using his father's account, had been traced and the account removed. He hoped that I could forgive him. Carl's message contained a lot of spelling mistakes.

Three days later, it started again. The e-mail address had changed to one provided by postmaster.co.uk, but the abuse was the same, if not worse. I found the complaints address at Postmaster, and forwarded the message to them. Back came a reply promising to look into it. That was the last I heard from them.

The next two hours brought a further eight messages. First of all, a warning from Carl Smith that the culprit had started to use a new Hotmail address, and that they were continuing to monitor him. Oddly enough though, this time the message was signed by Carl Thomas. Then there were three messages from the new address, more obscenities, this time signed by Andy K. Then another from Carl Smith/Thomas, assuring me that they were doing all they could to trace the messages. Another thought came to me. Hotmail is based in the United States, on the West Coast - how come all these nice people were working so hard when they should be in bed? When I tried to contact them by phone, even the fax machine was turned off.

A few minutes later, more garbage arrived, with my own name in the "from" box. But underneath it, the e-mail address was still the latest Hotmail one.

Finally, to round the day off, a Mr Fielding of foreignenquiries@hotmail.com informed me that the culprit had been traced and was now being arrested "for Internet crimes". He also mentioned that I would be entitled to compensation for my troubles. Unfortunately, Mr Fielding seemed to have the same spelling problem as Carl. By now I was intrigued. Who was this pest?

For the next few days, the swearing stopped, but the messages from Carl continued. Apparently, as well as compensation, there was a good chance that the BBC would be using my case in a documentary about e-mail abuse. He gave me a name at the BBC, but a quick check with them proved that this was fictitious. When I told Carl this, he turned nasty, and threatened to take my name off the list which he was sending to the producer.

At this point, I decided to try Hotmail again. I sent all the details to their Advertising Sales department, where I thought that a human might read the incoming messages. Sure enough, somebody replied, saying that they had forwarded my complaint to the Abuse department. Apart from two more auto-respond messages, I heard no more.

Over the weekend, all went quiet, but on the Monday, a new record of 12 messages arrived. By now, Carl had dropped all pretence of being senior management, and he weighed in with his own stream of abuse.

A different approach was called for. The header information of the messages contained an IP address, the number which identifies networked machines. The first three numbers were always the same, but the fourth varied. I went to a website (www.ripe.net) where you can find out who an IP address is allocated to. This told me that the range of addresses belonged to a UK Internet service provider. A couple of phone calls got me through to their support department. At last, a human voice who could help me. He confirmed that the addresses were those used by a number of schools on their dial-in service.

I sent him the full collection of messages, From the times of the messages and the IP addresses, he was able to pin it down to one school. The school was informed, and they began to monitor the Web activity on their computers. The next day I was told that the culprit had been identified.

That, I hope, is the end of it. Maybe I was wrong to reply in the first place - but perhaps my efforts have spared someone else the same treatment. It has certainly shown, despite their claims, how powerless the e-mail service providers are.

Maybe they are flooded with similar complaints, but at a time when I wanted to know what was going on, I heard absolutely nothing from them. Even if they did manage to close down one account, another one was opened.

If Carl ever gets a spell-checker, he might start to fool people.

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