The e-stalker is anonymous, invisible and untraceable. But, says Emma E Forrest, net chicks know how to deal with nerd rage
Big, baggy monster that it is, the Internet is resistant to attempts at regulation and control. Not that it stops people trying. Last week, David Kerr, chief executive of industry body the Internet Watch Foundation, suggested awarding certificates to newsgroups and websites devoted to sex. With the right software, parents could prevent their children accessing "18-certificate" material. Opponents of Internet censorship have already raised objections. But morality aside, how can we keep a grip on the worldwide web when we can't even control the transmission of e-mail? For, just like any other medium, e-mail is corruptible, and after physical harassment, phone, fax and letter, it is the latest weapon to join the stalker's armoury.

As the following case studies show, however, women users of the net are proving both resourceful and resilient in dealing with unwelcome attention from anonymous correspondents. If it happens to you, protect yourself by taking the following steps:

Be selective about who you give your address to, as you would with your phone number.

Keep safe any e-mails you print out.

Don't forget to log off when you have finished using the terminal.

Carefully vet the online services you give your e-mail address to.

Find out how to delete mail coming from the e-stalker's address.

Ignore the messages and your stalker will probably give up.

If the messages become more disturbing change your e-mail address or take legal action.

Sarah, 18

"I was sitting in the university e-mail room when I got a message saying 'You don't know me but...'" explains undergraduate student Sarah.

"It was nice stuff, but a bit over the top. He said things like, 'You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.' I don't know how he got my name and e-mail address because it doesn't come up on screen when you are using it. I didn't reply, but a few days later I got another message. He told me that he was sitting in the same room as me and that he was surprised that I had not written back to him. He kept sending me messages, asking me questions about myself and saying that he had been watching me in the e-mail room.

"I forwarded a few of the messages on to a friend who said that he sounded like a serial killer and recommended against keeping a rabbit. All I knew about him was that he was a Masters student called Paul and possibly a foreign student because he asked me if I was English.

"I was a bit spooked because he was giving me details about the dates and times when he had seen me. I started to get nervous because every time I used my e-mail he could have been sitting next to me, and I had also been using it before morning lectures, when the room was almost empty. Anything could have happened.

"After about three weeks, I sent him a message saying that he must have got his facts wrong because I wasn't in the e-mail room at a time he specified, and I started using another room."

Anita, 22

"The most worrying thing that has happened to me on the net was when someone hacked into my work e-mail addresses and sent out a couple of crude messages. They were signed Freddy," says Anita, a postgraduate student.

"He sent an abusive one to my boyfriend in Aberdeen, threatening to kill him. Another one was sent to my friend Sue in Oxford. It was full of obscene sexual suggestions. Among other things, he said he was going to come to get her and told her he knew that she liked it from behind.

"Unfortunately, she is in her mid-forties and is someone I used to work with. I think that she was quite shocked - she had never come across the expression '12-inch bell-ender' before...

"Nobody at the university's computer service knew how it had happened. But I changed my password immediately and sent messages to all the people whose addresses were on my server and have experienced no problems since.

"It could have been an absolute disaster. Luckily, the people who were sent the messages knew me and knew that I was not responsible. My boyfriend said he knew the messages weren't from me because they were so badly punctuated.

"But, more seriously, someone who doesn't know you might think that it's genuine and that you're a real nutter. I'm very wary of using my e-mail now, and I never leave my addresses on my server anymore."

Kelly, 23

A brief holiday romance led to an unexpected mountain of messages for Kelly, a business student.

"I had a fling with M on the last night of my holiday in the United States. I had only met him a couple of times beforehand, and that was always when I went out with a group of friends. As far as I was concerned, our night together was just for fun, a casual thing, but he obviously thought there was more to it.

"He looks like Ben Elton and I don't fancy him at all. Our little escapade only happened because I was on the rebound after splitting up with my long-term boyfriend. He was very understanding, and I thought he realised that he was just a shoulder to cry on.

"When I came back to college, within the couple of days it took me to return from the States he had sent me seven long e-mails and a parcel of photographs he had reprinted for me. I had talked about my plans to go travelling this summer, and he wrote in one of the messages that he wanted to spend six months going round America with me, and what did I think!

"I haven't written back yet. But when I do, I will make it clear that he doesn't figure in my holiday plans, or the rest of my life.

"His messages so far have been suggestive but not blatant, so I'm not sure how to take it. It's never happened to me before. I don't want to hurt his feelings, but I am not really interested in him. I just hope he doesn't do something crazy like turn up on my doorstep."

Sam, 26

Only after several weeks of constant messages from her e-mail stalker did Sam, a PA, discover that he was living with someone.

"I met C at a friend's office party. We got on quite well and I used to talk to him whenever I called up the office to talk to my friend, Hannah. One day, I called up and he asked for my e-mail address. I didn't think it could do me any harm and I was quite flattered when he sent me a friendly message.

"Initially, I even thought it could go further and I was quite interested. But then he started sending me several e-mails a day and they were getting more and more suggestive. It was a bit too intense to get these intimate e-mails from someone I had barely met in the flesh. I replied to them at first, but they just kept on coming even when I gave up writing to him.

"Also, after a month or so, Hannah told me he was living with his girlfriend. I was quite upset because he shouldn't have propositioned me if he wasn't able to carry it through. Even worse, he planned to do all those things with me, even though he was already going out with someone.

"I was vulnerable because I'd just split up with my boyfriend. The situation came to a head when we met at a party at Hannah's. He was very drunk and made several very dirty propositions. It was like something out of an airport novel. I told him I wasn't interested because he had a girlfriend. But he suggested that nobody need know - 'Married man seeks no-strings- attached fun' stuff. I was not impressed."