The porn's in the post

Andrew North on the outrage caused by a tasteless `spam'

Thousands of subscribers to America Online and several other online services received an unwelcome surprise when they checked their e-mail last week. They found they had been sent junk e-mail offering a wide range of child pornography.

Investigations into the source of the "spam" are still continuing, but there are signs that it is actually a tasteless hoax. The message purported to be from a named individual with a New York state address. But as many recipients have already pointed out, no one would be so stupid as to put their real name on such a posting.

The author claimed to be "a fan of child pornography" and was offering videotapes, posters, games and even tape recordings of young boys moaning requested names. Recipients were also told they could have their own face "morphed" into a video to make it appear that they were participating. Prices and payment details were attached. The message informed people they had been sent the offer "because your e-mail address was on a list that fit (sic) this category".

Variously titled, "Child pornography", "Child Fun" or Child XXX", AOL was first alerted to the posting last Monday, when its helpdesk was deluged with complaints. Users of other online and Internet services, including CompuServe, Prodigy, AT&T WorldNet and Netcom also reported receiving the message. More than 200 people had complained about the message to CompuServe UK's helpdesk within 24 hours of the posting.

The posting originated from two AOL addresses (TipToe0001@aol.com and R9ch@aol.com), but people who tried to reply found their messages bounced back immediately. Experts suspect the addresses were actually "screen names", which were simply deleted once the spam had been sent. In common with many other Internet companies, AOL's software allows subscribers to create several screen names for each account.

In theory, it should be possible for AOL to trace the owner of the accounts or accounts. But this will not necessarily lead to the author of the message because the account could have been used illegally. The company said: "The source of the e-mail is still unknown." The FBI is now investigating the case and British police have also been contacted.

Opinion in the newsgroups was tending towards the view that the child porn spam is either a prank or an attempt to smear the person named in the e-mail. One theory is that people who had contributed to newsgroup discussions on combating child pornography on the Net had been deliberately targeted with the posting. Alternatively, people's e-mail addresses may simply have been grabbed as they passed through particular Web sites.

Whatever the case, it is hard to believe this mass posting was a real attempt to sell child pornography. Moreover, by sending it to so many people, the originator was inviting trouble. As one newsgroup contributor wrote: "Short of actually walking in to a police station and confessing, I can't imagine a faster way of getting attention from local, state and federal authorities than sending e-mail to a thousand strangers announcing that you have child porn for sale"

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