An Essex man was placed on probation this week for harassing his former supervisor by signing her up for e-mail subscriptions, flooding her inbox with unwanted messages from dating services and job lines, the state attorney general's office said yesterday.
Scott C. Huffines, 41, a former Web designer at Maryland Public Television, admitted signing his supervisor's e-mail address on Internet sites to annoy the woman with the resulting e-mails, according to the attorney general's office.
Alex Vitalo, an MPT employee, started receiving unwanted e-mails and phone calls in September, according to court documents and the attorney general's office. The flood of messages was so intense that she changed her e-mail address in October, but she started receiving the messages again.
"What was unique about this case was that the defendant did not send the harassing e-mail directly but instead signed the victim up to receive e-mail from other sources without her permission or knowledge," said Kevin Enright spokesman for the attorney general's office.
Such "spamming by proxy" is not uncommon, said Annalee Newitz, policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.
"Anecdotally, I've heard about it all the time," she said. "Usually it's just to harass someone you don't like. You sign them up for a bunch of porn sites."
Newitz said the case this week in Maryland is the first such criminal prosecution she has heard about.
Enright said it was the first case of its type handled by the attorney general's office. The office handled the case because it involved state employees, he said.
Stephen Bailey, deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County, said he was unaware of any such cases handled by his office. The office has handled a number of cases involving e-mail harassment, but many of those incidents involved one person directly e-mailing another and were often tied to domestic violence cases.
"Sometimes it's along the lines of 'If you don't see me, I will spread some rumor about you,' or 'I'll ruin your business,' or 'I'll spread the naked pictures I have of you,'" he said.
Huffines pleaded guilty Tuesday to misuse of electronic mail, a misdemeanor in Maryland since 2002, the attorney general's office said. He received probation before judgment, meaning that if he completes the terms of his probation, he will not have a conviction.
Baltimore County District Judge Barbara Jung placed Huffines on two years of unsupervised probation and ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service by educating children about the appropriate use of the Internet, the attorney general's office said.
The idea of harassing people by having unwanted mail sent to them is nothing new, said Bill Jeitner, president of the Association of Computer Investigative Specialists, a nonprofit organization that trains and certifies law enforcement officials in computer forensics. But using a computer makes the harassment more efficient.
"As long as there's angry people out there, these kinds of crimes are going to continue," he said.
Newitz said the way more Web sites manage their e-mail subscriptions might make it more difficult to harass people by signing them up for messages. Because companies fear being accused of spamming, she said, many use a "double opt-in," meaning that when someone signs up for a subscription, the site sends a confirmation e-mail. The recipient must respond to become a subscriber.
"E-mail harassment will not go away, but we're not likely to see this become more common," Newitz said.