The email message, which comes from an America Online return address, reads as follows:
"Hello, my name is Andy. I know where you live and I know where your kids sleep. If you dont [sic] call me within 24 hours im [sic] going to kill your kids." It lists a phone number and adds: "P.S. This is NOT a joke."
The phone number listed on the email message, which apparently belonged to the family of a teenager named Andy, has been disconnected. The teenager "has never been looked at" as a suspect, according to John Ryan, assistant general counsel for AOL.
"We're working closely with the FBI," Ryan said. "This is a criminal investigation, and we're cooperating fully with the FBI."
Ryan said the account from which the message was transmitted was terminated, but he declined to give further details.
An FBI spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
AOL spokesperson Tricia Primrose said AOL has "no idea" how many of its members received the threat.
Yahoo's "customer care" team has not received complaints from users regarding the threat as yet, according to Wendy Yanovitch, vice president of member services for Yahoo.
NEWS.COM received a complaint via email from Yahoo Mail user Darren Killingbeck. He said today that he believes the sender got his email address from his posts to the "alt.2600" newsgroup, which discusses hacking and technology issues.
"My Yahoo account was frozen for a few days," Killingbeck said. "I've had that account for more than six months, and this is the first time I didn't have access."
He said tech support was able to restore his account quickly once he alerted them about the problem.
Overall, email threats are "not very widespread," Yanovitch said today. "There is the occasional report of an event like this."
She noted that the Yahoo Mail terms of service address threatening email.
When registering for an account, users agree to the terms, which include the following: "You agree not to use the service for illegal purposes or for the transmission of material that is unlawful, harassing, libelous, invasive of another's privacy, abusive, threatening, harmful, vulgar, obscene, tortious, or otherwise objectionable, or that infringes or may infringe the intellectual property or other rights of another."
Though that clause refers to users of the mail service and the email threat came from AOL, Yanovitch said: "We're concerned with maintaining an open and friendly environment," and the firm would cooperate with any law enforcement investigation. She said the customer care team deals with complaints on an individual basis.
"There probably has always been an element like this on the Internet," she added. "It's a small population. The bulk of people who use our service want to do good things."
Killingbeck, who does not have children, said he was angered by the email message, but not frightened by it.
"I knew it was probably some 12-year-old acting their age," he said. But "Something like this gives the Net a bad name."
Threats made via the Net are not a new phenomenon. Earlier this year, a 21-year-old Los Angeles man was convicted for sending racist death threats via email to 59 Asian students at the University of California at Irvine. The case set a precedent in that it put online communications on par legally with telephone calls and postal mail. It also was significant because it addressed civil rights violations perpetrated online.
President Clinton has received numerous email threats, most recently by a 14-year-old student. A Web site describing how a number of high school students in Washington state should die was taken down in April.
Online hate speech also has been a subject that has plagued online services, families, and free speech advocates alike.