On June 10, out of the blue, Bruce Hovland's business phone started ringing off the hook. The people calling weren't happy.
They all demanded to know the same thing: How did they get on his mailing list? They also insisted, not always nicely, that he not send them the pornography he had apparently promised them in an email. They didn't order any porn, they said.
Hovland doesn't send out pornography for a living, and he hadn't sent angry callers any email, either.
In fact, Hovland is a Florida businessman who rents out an inland marina and markets various products like construction materials, none of which have anything to do with porn, email, or the Internet. He surfs for educational reasons and sometimes sends mail, but that's about it.
According to Hovland, he is a victim of a crime. Someone--he thinks he knows who--sent out an email to possibly thousands of people telling them that "in 48 hours your credit card will be charged $184.80" for three adult videos. Recipients were then told they could not reply by email but "If we do not hear from you within 48 hours, we will assume everything is correct and make the charge to your card."
The email supplied contact numbers, all belonging to Hovland. Perhaps adding insult to injury, the email said "you may call collect you if you wish."
Hovland estimates there were thousands of calls from everywhere. "I've been pretty much threatened from all corners of the world," he said. He added he reported the incident to the local sheriff's department and to the FBI and Secret Service.
"I think I've been internationally defamed. I'm known worldwide as a porn dealer."
But that's not even the part that bothers him the most: Hovland said this incident alerted him to the fact that there's no place to deal specifically with Internet crimes. Now, he wants to do something about it.
"I believe that the entity, the Internet, is accountable. The freedom of it is what makes it so great, but they need to police it. They need to have 911 [for the] Internet."
He's already gotten support from one person: Philip Kirschner, a law student who received the spam and called Hovland to cancel the order. Kirschner is helping to mount a campaign for legislation or some sort of task force.
Hovland said he and a friend started tracing the email spam. With some luck, he explained, he figured out that it came from a wanted man who had fled the country and left his boat and car at Hovland's marina without paying rent. Hovland eventually sold the goods, but catching the alleged culprit is a different story; suing him would be nearly impossible.
Hovland said he's lost two weeks worth of work. But he noted it could have been a lot worse: Someone could have directed the spam victims to a hospital switchboard or some other business that counts on their phones to help save lives.
"Anyone can be a victim, whether you're an Internet user or not. If a guy can be in a foreign country and pinpoint his harassment and maybe be unprosecutable, there's a major problem. International harassment via the Internet can be an extremely volatile thing. It's a lot more serious than some fat white guy in Florida getting harassed."
Now he hopes the spam and his experience will lead to something bigger, maybe even a movement that speaks for the average person who winds up being a victim of a Net crime.
"A regular businessman in this society can be victimized at the point of a mouse," Hovland said. "They could literally put me out of business if they continued. It's bizarre."