Secret Service BBS raids from the other perspective

I’ve written in the past about the Feds busting people using BBSs for nefarious purposes in the early 1990s. But the only stories I’ve ever heard were from the perspective of the people who got busted, often second or third hand.

Here’s a story from the side of someone who helped the Secret Service for three days in the 1980s.

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Was California Republican Tony Krvaric Strider of Fairlight?

A story today about the possibility that a prominent California Republican, Tony Krvaric, was once a co-founder of the Commodore 64 warez group Fairlight caused an uproar on Slashdot today. The claim said Krvaric went by the handle of Strider.

Reading it brought back some memories.

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Fighting Web rage

There’s something about the Internet that turns people into jerks. Or maybe there’s something about jerks that turns them on to the Internet. — Tim Barker, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I loved that lead, and the rest of the story is good too. I first started using the Internet in 1993, and I first went online sometime in 1986 or 87.
I think people who started going online in the 1980s and early 1990s tend to be more polite because in those days, “going online” usually meant dialing into a computer that a hobbyist set up in a spare bedroom for the purpose of attracting like-minded people who wanted to talk about shared interests. It was an expensive hobby–generally the computer had to be dedicated to the purpose, and the operator had to pay for an extra phone line, and the software to run the operatiion cost money too.

Whenever someone would start acting rude, it didn’t take long for someone to step in and remind the person that he (in those days, it usually was a he) was essentially a guest in someone’s house, and he had to play by the owner’s rules or get thrown out.

There were still disagreements, of course, and if there were too many people I didn’t like on a particular bulletin board, I’d quit calling. At first I took it personally, but considering that in 1990 there were literally hundreds of bulletin boards running in St. Louis, it was always easy to find a new hangout.

One of my friends from those days ended up being the best man at my wedding. I ran into someone else I knew from that timeframe back in December at a train show. He and I probably talked for more than an hour, catching up.

The big problem today is that people think they own the Internet because they pay $20 a month for Internet access, so they have the right to go anywhere they want and say and do anything they want. And they also think they can do this without anyone knowing who they are or where they live. The combination of unlimited entitlement and zero presence of fear tends to bring out the worst in bitter, unpleasant people.

The thing is, you don’t own the Internet. That monthly fee just gives you the right to use it. If you hop in your car, drive someplace, and pay the cover charge, you don’t own the place. If you start threatening people or otherwise making things unpleasant, the guy who pays the rent can throw you out.

The anonymyty is a bit of a myth too. Ask anyone who’s been sued for downloading MP3s. Tracking someone down online is sometimes difficult, but it’s never impossible. There’s a guy on a train forum I frequent who uses the cryptic name of LS51Heli. Hiding behind a cryptic username, a throwaway Gmail address, and a bunch of false information in his user profile, he relishes in taunting and harassing anyone who disagrees with him–and some people who don’t.

But the security LS51Heli thinks he lives under doesn’t exist. Ask Lori Drew, the woman whose online bullying drove Megan Meier to suicide in 2006. Knowing nothing more than the name of a neighbor, hundreds of people tracked her down. A friend and I spent a couple of hours one Sunday night and Monday morning tracking her down, before her identity became widely known. Most of the tools we used were a bit more complicated than a Google search, but everything we used is free and open on the Internet, ready for anyone to use–provided they know where to look.

I can’t speak for anyone else’s motivation, but we unmasked her so that we could keep her away from his kids. Once a bully, always a bully. We never did anything else with the information.

I’ve never felt the need to go unmask LS51Heli. But it could be done.

Usually the troublemakers on train forums will eventually get banned, and then they’ll slink off to another forum and complain about how their rights to freedom of speech got stepped on. One forum in particular tends to be a real magnet for these people, and they refer to the more mainstream forums as “North Korea,” “Iran,” and “Iraq” while they talk about goings-on at the places that banned them and poke fun at the forums’ owners and anyone they don’t like.

They forget that the person who pays to run the web site has rights too–including the right to throw out unruly guests.

The Internet would be a much more pleasant place if we all remembered that we’re just guests in someone else’s house. I pay my monthly fee, but the site operator’s bill is a lot higher than my $20 a month. It’s no different from visiting my sister. It costs me $20 to drive there, but she pays the mortgage, so she owns the place and she makes the rules.

What to do when you\’ve been ripped off in a buy/sell forum

I’ve spent the last week chasing a scammer, because I’m a sucker for a good story. I have that story, but I’m not happy with it.

In the meantime, there’s definitely a need for a procedure to follow if you make a deal on a forum or bulletin board and never receive the promised merchandise.There are several things that you can and should do. The laws are slippery, and in the case of the scammer I’ve been watching, he seems to be pretty careful to keep his fraud under certain thresholds to stay in operation. So you need all the help you can get.

First, gather information. Find the address where you sent your item or payment. Have descriptions of the item(s) you sent and the item(s) you expected to receive, along with fair market value. If you have Paypal receipts or anything like that, print those out. If you have addresses, phone numbers, or any other information, get that too. Finally, if you have an address or phone number, do a Google search to find your trading partner’s local police department.

If your trading partner has ripped off other people and other people are complaining about it, take evidence of this along.

Take all of that information to your local police department and ask to file a complaint. The procedure varies from department to department. An officer might interview you, or there might be a form you can fill out. Whatever it is, be nice and cooperate with them. These guys are on your side, but the more pleasant you are to work with, the more likely they’re going to be to be willing to go the extra mile for you.

Ask if they’ll contact your trading partner’s local police department, or if you need to do that. If you need to do it, call the other police department and give them all the information they ask for. Most likely, your local police department will make contact because they’ll need to work together.

Next, get the feds involved. Some of these guys get away with what they do because their scams involve small amounts of money. But if you mailed your package or payment through the U.S. Postal Service and the person scammed you, now the person is also guilty of mail fraud, which can make a minor crime more serious.

You can report mail fraud by filling out a USPS form online. The process is simple and only takes a few minutes.

Take the time to do this, because there is one scammer out there who’s been getting away with fraud for at least four years, primarily because he seems to be careful to keep the value each transaction low enough. So you need all the extra help you can get.

I don’t know why five $200 ripoffs don’t equal one $1,000 ripoff. That’s a question for the police.

Finally, contact the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. This may or may not help you, but it will help other victims.

Of course you should also contact the administrators of the forum where the deal took place, but all they can do is ban the account. The scammer probably doesn’t care; he’ll be on another forum next week under a different name anyway.

It seems like part of the reason people are able to get away with these schemes is because discussions about them quickly degenerate into flamewars, sometimes with the scammer himself doing everything he can to fan the flames. Then the moderators close the thread or delete it, and then no constructive dialog can take place. Then the scammer just moves on to another forum, where he has no history and is free to do it again.

Talking about it is fine. The problem is, the topic of contacting the authorities usually comes up too late in the discussion, so a lot of people don’t think about it. If they think about it, they might not know where to start.

If you’ve been scammed, please contact law enforcement. The authorities may or may not be able to help you get your stuff back, but if enough people act, they can put a scammer out of business, so other people don’t fall victim to the same scheme you did.

Permission is granted to copy the contents of this post, either in part or in full, to bulletin boards, forums, and personal web sites as long as you provide a link either to https://dfarq.homeip.net/article/20070720124023117 or, if you prefer, to https://dfarq.homeip.net.

Build a quiet and reliable toy train layout

I hear two complaints about Lionel/American Flyer/Marx electric train layouts (besides the common complaints from uptight scale modelers, that is). One is the amount of space they take up, and the other is the noise.

Let’s tackle the noise. While we’re at it, we’ll tackle reliability.

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Punishing the curious for something that should have never happened

I saw a story on the news tonight about more than 100 students who won’t be getting into MBA programs. Why? When they applied to a number of prestigous universities, a posting on a bulletin board claimed to let them view their records and see if they were admitted or not.

It didn’t work for all of them. But those who tried to peek are being punished.My question is why is this information on the public Internet to begin with? This is precisely what intranets are for: You put sensitive information on a web server behind a firewall. Then you define one or more computers who can see it. The rest of the world can’t access it, because the rest of the world doesn’t know it exists. But those who are authorized to see it can see it, through the convenience of a web browser.

Leaving this kind of information on a web server that’s open to the public via the plain old Internet is akin to keeping student records, finals, and other sensitive information at the campus library. If it’s out where someone can see that it’s there–or might suspect it’s there–then someone’s going to look. It shouldn’t be there in the first place. I had professors who never kept tests in their office because some student at some point in time had broken in, hoping to get a preview of the final.

Punishing applicants for typing in a link that they figured wouldn’t work anyway accomplishes little or nothing, except to say that some of the nation’s finest universities have given no thought whatsoever to their computer security and network design.

I hope their graduates are smarter than the people who run the place. But that’s probably a given.

Why is there a stigma about meeting people online?

Steve DeLassus just made a funny observation to me. He said when he talks about me, sometimes people consider meeting and communicating with people online as somehow abnormal. And they tell him via e-mail.
My coworker, Murel, has told me several times that when he was my age, the last place he would want to say he met someone was in a bar. Without making any moral judgments, I would rate the likelihood of me meeting someone in a bar and finding the right stuff for a serious, long-term relationship as very low. There are numerous qualities and values on my must-have list that you’re just not very likely to find in that kind of environment. And most of the things on my can’t-stand list that are very easy to find there.

But what’s the stigma about meeting people online? Steve DeLassus and I met on a bulletin board back in 1989 or 1990. We both had Commodores and modems, and it was summertime and we had time on our hands. The closest thing we had to the Internet in our homes those days was CompuServe. People who didn’t want to pay for CompuServe dialed into BBSs instead. I have one other friend from that timeframe that I talk to at all, and that’s about once a year. But Steve’s been one of my best friends for a very long time.

I met Dan Bowman online. I fired off a rant to Jerry Pournelle about alternative operating systems, and–these were the days when one could post an e-mail address on a Web site without fear of having 250 spam messages in your inbox the next day–Dan replied to me. And we quickly found some common ground. Dan noticed that at the time I was working for a Lutheran organization, and his dad was Lutheran. The result was, once again, a lasting and very valuable friendship.

It’s true that online you can pretend to be othing that you’re not, but it’s hard. Eventually the truth comes out. Some people are fooled for a long time, but every relationship I’ve made online that later fell apart, whether it was of romantic nature or strictly friendship, had one thing in common: My initial impression of the person was slightly wrong.

Funny. When I think of relationships that started in the physical world that fell apart, the same thing is true.

Now, some people are better at talking and listening than they are at reading. As a journalist, I had to be able to look at available information and take educated guesses about what was missing. No, not so I could print those along with the facts, but so I could go and find the rest of the story. As a computer tech, I’m constantly faced with solving problems for which there is little information. I can tell a lot about a person by their writing style and by the questions they ask me. Talking on the phone and later meeting in person tells me some more, but for me, that’s the optimal order.

And it’s easier for me to open up in writing than it is to just talk. It’s easier for me to be real and transparent and honest with someone I barely know when I’m not watching their expression or hearing their voice. Once I’m comfortable with the person, we can talk, but it’s pretty obvious when I get into an uncomfortable situation, and my discomfort can tend to overshadow anything that I might say. Plus, in writing, it matters a lot less how long it takes me to find the right words to say what I’m thinking.

For someone who’s a better listener than reader, the optimal order may be different. That doesn’t make this new way of doing things any less valid.

History, from the R.P. perspective.

Back in j-school, news directors and editors and professors extolled the virtues of the R.P. That’s journo-lingo for “Real person.” Not celebrities. Not network talking heads. Not news anchors. Not beat writers with agendas. Real people. People like you. And your next door neighbor.
The reason for that is pretty simple. Journalists don’t trust R.P.s, at least not in my experience, but the masses do. At least they trust R.P.s more than they trust slimy journalists. Not all R.P.s are trustworthy, but if you have to take odds, a higher percentage of R.P.s are trustworthy than journalists. So it goes. As a former journalist, I will have to say one thing about the almighty R.P.: Frequently the R.P. has seen or considered things that talking heads haven’t. Plus R.P.s tend to be more honest, because they don’t feel as much need to protect a public image. So they’re more likely to shoot straight with you.

And that’s why I think this is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a really long time. Google somehow got its mitts on some 20 years’ worth of Usenet messages. None of the news stories I saw on it said how they got this stuff, which is what I want to know. I’d love to know how complete it is.

But you’d probably love to know what Usenet is. Usenet is the ultimate public bulletin board system. Yes, most of its bandwidth is dedicated to the swapping of illegal copies of software and porn, but there’s a lot of chatter going on too, about every subject imaginable, plus all manner of subjects you never dared imagine.

The signal-to-noise ratio is really low. But that’s where Google comes in. You can search on a subject with a few keywords, sort by date, and find out what people were saying about an event when it happened.

You can’t find out what real people were saying about the Challenger explosion in 1986. Well, you can ask people who were alive in 1986, but memories fade over time. You’ll find information at the library, but it’s filtered. But you can search Usenet and read people’s emotion dumps, raw, unedited, unfiltered, and uncensored. Granted, the Usenet community was limited in 1986, but any subset of the population is better than what you’ll find at the library.

For kicks, I did a search on Yuri Andropov, sorted by date, and then punched through to the end. What I found at the end were references to the Soviets downing a Korean airliner in 1983. I remember my dad talking about it at the dinner table, flaunting it as just one more example of Soviet evil. I found a long-forgotten joke (“Why did Yuri Andropov shoot down a Korean Airliner? To impress Jodi Foster.” Ten points if you get that.) and emotions running high. Really high. Yeah, the Cold War was nearly over, but no one would have guessed it then. We’ve forgotten that at one time, Yuri Andropov was the most hated man in America.

Where’d I get the name Yuri Andropov? No, my memory’s not that good. I did a vague search, found clues, and then got specific. That’s how.

Maybe I’m the only one who’s excited about this, because I love history and I know a lot of people don’t.

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