The washroom graffiti trick of leaving someone's number on the wall has moved onto the Internet, with disastrous results for a Florida business.
Thousands of e-mail users, including some in the Hamilton and Burlington area, found an invoice in their electronic mailboxes over teh weekend, a bill for pornographic videotapes they had not ordered.
The message gave three phone numbers and invited the "customers" to call if there were any concerns.
Thousands did, and the phones at Hovland's Dry Dock in Naples, on the southwest coast of Florida, went berserk.
Hovland figures about 3,000 angry people called his boat business and personal cell phone. He put a message on his answering machine referring callers to a number the Collier County Sheriff's Department gave him, but the police asked him to take it off after receiving 125 calls in an hour Saturday afternoon.
James Buss, a McMaster University English student who works part-time at a bookstore in downtown Hamilton, was one of those callers.
Buss also tried to reply to the e-mail address on the message, but was not successful. He then called Hamilton-Wentworth police, MasterCard and GM Visa offices, and the Collier County sheriff to find out who could be billing his credit card.
"I have never placed an order with these people -- I don't even know who they are", Buss said. "I have never sent my credit card number over the Internet."
Visa said it would dispute the charges if the bill for $185 was put through on his card.
"I realize now it is a nasty prank somebody pulled on this guy", Buss said yesterday. "But I am going to watch my bill just in case."
At issue is mischief or harassment using the Internet, but there is virtually no control. The prankster has to be caught red-handed and that's no easy task.
"Someone is harassing this individual (Hovland) and his business. They are sending out phony messages on mailing lists to get people to call the guy and jam his phones. Obviously, somebody is quite angry at him."
Housman said the prank is considered a misdemeanor in Florida but the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation would take a serious look at the situation if someone sends money to cover one of the phony invoices.
"That would be something different, for sure."
Housman says the prankster is very difficult to trace because he built a trick into the e-mail message that changes his return address to a false one as soon as the message reaches its destination.
"He wanted people to pick up the phone and call the marina and leave it so he couldn't be traced."
E-mail addresses are easy to get, says Housman, either by compiling one's own list, using software to compile a list, or renting one from a marketing firm.
"If someone really wants to harass somebody on the Internet, it is easy to do and can cause a massive amount of damage."
Hovland has a pretty good idea where the telephone barrage is coming from.
He runs a storage yard alongside his landlocked boatyard and a while back he took steps to sell a truck and boat on which storage costs had not been paid.
The man who owned the rig had left town after being hit with a number of bad cheque charges, but appears to be furious about losing the equipment.
What Hovland calls a barrage of "cyber-terrorism" started July 10, rang up 750 calls in a few days, and then petered out.
Last Friday, it started again with a vengeance, including his name and personal phone number.
"I have calls from Vancouver to England, Africa, and back again", said Hovland. "Everybody thinks I'm in the pornography business and I am not."
The prankster tried to include Hovland's father's real estate company and got the phone number for another firm by mistake. "Those guys are having a problem too."
Hovland, 37, has had the marina for eight years and ran a dozen other businesses over the years. He said he's never seen anything like this.
"Oh sure, who in business hasn't had an angry customer, even one in a rage? But this is something else."
If the prankster can do it to him, Hovland wants to know what is to stop him -- or anyone else -- from tying up other more important numbers like emergency services, utilities, banks, and big merchants.
"I think there has to be controls on the Internet to stop this sort of thing."
"I believe in freedom of speech on the Internet and use it myself in a casual way, but someone has to be accountable and there ought to be laws to stop this stuff."
Hovland says the U.S. government, which set up the Internet as a defence communications tool a couple of decades ago, could take a hand in policing it.
"I want legislation aimed at this sort of crime, and if I can use what happened to me and the publicity I'm getting to get that done, fine. There ought to be a 911 number for the Internet."
David Jones, an assistant professor of computer science at McMaster University said laws exist to deal with this sort of crime.
"In Canada, it is called public mischief", he said. "There is a law against it and like any other crime, the trick will be catching the guy that is doing it."
A business on the receiving end of such a prank must decide if the problem is worth changing phone numbers or notifying police.
Unfortunately, said Jones, mischief is a low priority for strained police forces.
"It would be very difficult to pass a law to make it go away."
David Jones, assistant professor of computer science at McMaster University, says the best thing to do is nothing. Ignore it.
You know if you haven't been ordering porno tapes from Florida, dubious car parts from Guam, or whatever.
What you need to know is you are not alone. Thousands around the world may have gotten the same message and are wondering what to do.
"Most people's reaction is panic", says Jones. "The first urge is to call the source. They think, 'My God, my name is on some porn mailing list somewhere and I have to get it off there because my reputation is at stake.'"
What recipients have to do is take a deep breath, calm down, and realize thousands of others got the same, unsolicited garbage mail.
"Stop and think, what happens if everybody calls the same number?"
He says people should ignore unsolicited material and not become part of the problem.
How did the prankster or mass marketer get your e-mail address?
There is software that will sift through the Internet's Usenet news groups and filter out everything but the return e-mail address of everyone chatting about anything on a given day.
Suddenly, everyone who participated in a general discussion about car hub-caps is getting advertising e-mail about radiators.
Jones says it is because, somewhere, a marketer has targeted people with an interest in cars.
It is a cheap way to market products because 1,000 messages are no more trouble than 100 and if just two per cent of those "hits" buys something, the results are "fantastic".
Another way someone can get your address is to buy or rent mailing lists others have compiled.
There are also public access lists that can be copied.