AOL Watch - Spam News

David Cassel (
Mon, 21 Oct 1996 18:48:14 -0700 (PDT)

Earlier today an AOL user e-mailed hundreds of people, announcing "I have
pictures, VHS tapes, posters, audio recordings, and games based on child

The notorious mail included a price-list and an address in Jackson
Heights, New York. Several hundred students at the University of Oslo
reportedly received copies, as did students at Yale.  The message was
e-mailed to Oregon, Georgia, Illinois, and New York, as well as to
England, Australia, Holland, Finland, Germany, and Canada (according to
Usenet posts).  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police received several calls,
as did Interpol.  One ISP reported 10 of their 1,000 users received
copies--close to 1%. 

Even some net personalities received copies.  Ron Newman, formerly of the
MIT Media Lab, received the e-mail at five different accounts.  Joe Shea,
editor of the American Reporter, received a copy; Philip Elmer-DeWitt,
author of Time magazine's "Cyberporn" cover story, received two.  The
authors of "The Stalker's Home Page," and "Why AOL Sucks"  also received
the e-mail. 

Responding to complaints, AOL stated "we have closed the accounts
involved, and our legal department is taking action."  Postmaster David
O'Donnell posted to Usenet, "Please do not send in more reports of this
abuse".  Over 50 people complained to the New York police department, who
investigated the provided address--a P.O. Box--with the FBI.  (On a
mailing list, Brock Meeks noted that AOL has a "working relationship" with
the FBI.)

A reporter for the New York-based Newsday says the newspaper will probably
carry a story about the event in Tuesday's edition. (
According to one Usenet post, the address belongs to one of AOL's "disk
dancers".  The mailing address of the (presumably-framed) New Yorker is
for sales of a program that lets AOL users spend time on the system
without being charged. 

This is not the first time AOL's hacker community has cross swords with
child pornography.  The documentation for AOHell contains a section called
"Why I made AOHell."  "I'm sick of all the God damn pedophiles," the
program's author states.  "AOL constantly closed the 'Hackers' Member
room, but refuses to do anything about all the pedophilia rooms...If AOL
is going to do nothing about this type of sick behavior then I will do
everything I can to screw AOL up." 

Instead, users signing onto AOL tonight received an advertisement for
hardware that can "grab color images right from your camcorder, VCR, or
TV."  This December marks the five-year anniversary of the first child
pornography scandal on AOL.  In 1991 Newsweek reported that one subscriber
posing as a child "received pictures of what appear to be youngsters
involved in sexual acts."  AOL's members didn't find out about the incident 
until the story turned up on CNN.  (Mainly because the outraged user went
straight to the network.)

In 1993, ten-year-old George Burdynski disappeared from Brentwood,
Virginia.  He was never seen again--but his disappearance launched the
largest child pornography investigation in FBI history. In September of
1995, the FBI raided the homes of 120 AOL users, and in July the FBI
raided 100 homes just in Cincinnati.  Days before, one agent told the
Cincinnati Enquirer "there are new people being identified daily." The FBI
had information on more than 3,000 users--which at the time constituted
one out of every 1,200 AOL subscribers; "FBI and America Online records
revealed that during one 25-minute span when an illegal photograph was
made available on the computer service, about 400 people nationwide
downloaded the picture to their computers." Jean Villanueva stated that
AOL contacted the FBI "upon receiving the material, and verifying that it
was in all likelihood illegal".  (At least one children's rights activist
questioned the legality of delays "verification" added to AOL's response.)

Earlier that year U.S. Customs Officials cracked a child pornography ring
operating on America Online.  In February of 1995 two teachers in Florida
were charged, and a third suspect arrested in Salt Lake City.  A Customs
official said photographs were being downloaded directly from AOL's
shareware section, which apparently wasn't monitored round-the-clock.  The
first guilty verdict from that investigation was handed down in February
of 1996--for photographs a user transmitted in July of 1994.  In August an
AOL user in San Francisco was indicted for his involvement in a
13-year-old Kentucky girl's 2-week disappearance; in November of 1995, a
New Jersey man was sentenced for actions with a young boy in July of 1994. 

The San Francisco Chronicle suggested problems were exacerbated by AOL's
fully-anonymous screen names.  In fact, up until September of 1995, AOL
wasn't even verifying the full authenticity of the credit card information
users input.  That created an entrenched subculture of disk dancers that
persists to this day--the Washington Post reported that between March and
June, over 370,000 fake accounts were created with bogus credit card

Ironically, the ten-year-old boy who disappeared lived just miles from
AOL's headquarters in Vienna, Virginia.  One children's rights advocate is
considering setting up a fund in the boy's name. 

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