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AOL "riot" falls short

Other than creating some problems in chat rooms, the so-called Valentine's Day massacre on America Online appeared to be short-lived.

The insurgency against America Online (AOL) began as planned tonight as bands of self-described "rioters" fanned out across the network's many chat rooms to create havoc.

But the Valentine's Day revolution--promised last week to protest poor service and congested access to AOL--appeared to be short-lived. Two hours after its 6 p.m. launch, the online assault seemed to have dissipated, falling far short of the threatened widespread damage involving the spread of viruses and cancellation of member accounts.

"I'm very disappointed," said a member identified as RiotRebel in an on-screen interview. "Our message was to try to tell Steve Case and AOL that we wouldn't just waste our time trying to log on while they took our dollars. We tried a number of petitions, but not one person even replied to us when we tried to bargain."

AOL, which had been preparing for the Valentine's Day assault for more than a week, met the attackers on several fronts, including their own turf. Expanded AOL "community action teams" were right there in the rioters' own private rooms, kicking rebels off en masse and preventing them from doing major harm.

AOL remained on heightened alert tonight, spokesman Andrew Graziani said, but no significant trouble emerged. In fact, in at least a few cases, the commitment of the revolutionaries themselves appeared questionable.

Some said they were worried that the attack would lead AOL to crack down on illegal trade in private rooms and other privileges. One apparently adolescent hacker wrote in an online interview that he wanted to participate in the revolt but probably wouldn't, "'cause if my parents find out they will kill me."

Still, the online rebels--many of whom appeared to be teenagers--did manage to launch mass email bombings and create problems in several chat rooms, ejecting many AOL members from one of the service's most popular features.

While AOL members encountered some mischief in the afternoon, the attack began in earnest at 6 p.m. PT, the time designated earlier in the day. Using accounts they had stolen from unwary AOL members who had given out their passwords online, rioters went into various chat rooms and began their attacks employing three main tactics:

  • SCROLLING--a technique in which users send messages across the screen so fast that they are hardly legible.

  • TOSing, removing users from a system by reporting them for violating their terms of service.

  • Phishing, fishing for passwords, a practice where instant messages are sent to users, claiming to be AOL staff and saying they need their confidential sign-ons. Despite AOL's ubiquitous warnings to never give out passwords online, a surprising number of users disclose them.

    The insurgency began earlier in the day as subscribers who were in to AOL chat rooms suddenly saw a warning scroll on to their windows saying that they would be "disconnected in 90 seconds." A countdown then appeared and users were indeed cut off at the appointed time.

    As the 6 p.m. witching hour approached, rioters gathered in several private rooms, coaxing each other into a frenzy, like a pregame football rally gone amuck. Sending each other passwords for other accounts, they egged each other on with comments like, "Are we going to cause some havoc or what?"

    In one room, hackers gathered for an online countdown to the fateful hour, when they then dispersed to cause damage. But a quick run through the chat rooms revealed that very little damage was being done an hour or so after the attack began. Some rioters were "scrolling" in the lobby areas while others targeted gay and lesbian rooms with homophobic taunts.

    Members who often frequent chat rooms where they can show off tricks to each other and share pirated software, had circulated messages vowing that anyone who logged on to AOL today would be sorry. They threatened to pass out viruses and cancel people's accounts as well as make general pests out of themselves by, for example, making chat sessions difficult to read.

    While many of them describe themselves as hackers, few are, in the true sense on the word.

    Anyone who does not have the name "riot" or "revolt" in their screen names will be booted, they said.

    Some hackers had said in email letters that they wanted to attack AOL because of its record of poor service and constant busy signals. Others said they wanted to free up the chat rooms so they could exchange illegal programs and pornography with impunity.

    Still others said they were simply tired of the way they were treated by AOL. "The Whole Reason I Started this RIOT is to Show AOL and CATWatch that I am not Gonna CONTINUE to Sit Back and Take their...," says one poorly spelled email.

    The email also stated the attack was slated for 6 p.m. PT. "I Refuse to Have an Account Killed Just For Being in a PRIVATE Room I am Not Gonna Take the Continuous Harrasment From AOL When They Kell My Accounts Then WONT TELL ME WHY! I am Sick of AOL...I am so Sick of ALL there...I Know you are thinking If you Dont Like AOL Then Dont use it But I have Just as Much Right To be Here."

    To hear explanations from self-described hacker insiders, turn to CNET Radio.

    Reporter Rose Aguilar contributed to this report.