Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006 | 7:26 a.m.
Kevin Murphy thought he was exchanging e-mails with a slender brunette named Melissa.
Murphy was very, very wrong. He was one of more than 200 men across the country who realized too late they had fallen for the wrong girl.
Melissa was really Michael Crook, a 28-year-old Liverpool, N.Y., man who posted an Internet personals ad last month posing as a young woman seeking a casual encounter - "no strings attached."
Murphy e-mailed 19-year-old Melissa - that's Crook - his photograph and phone number. Over a brief exchange, Melissa coaxed information from Murphy: his whereabouts, his employer, a more intimate photograph. The pair made plans to meet.
Then Crook called Murphy's wife. In fact, Crook called the chief executive of the company Murphy works for and most of the upper management. Crook informed Murphy's wife and co-workers via e-mail that he had contacted area press as well as some of the company's corporate clients about the businessman's extramarital exchange. He signed off with a reminder that the Internet infidelity would never go away, because by then, Crook had posted Murphy's photo, phone number, employer and e-mails to Melissa on a Web site he created for the sole purpose of exposing the dozens of men he fooled exactly the same way, in Las Vegas and across the country.
The Web site, Crook reports, received an average of 100,000 hits a day. And Crook merely cribbed the idea off Jason Fortuny, a Seattle man whose sham online personals ad drew 178 responses in 24 hours - all complied on a Web site, many with phone numbers and photos (some nude) the unwitting men provided. Fortuny's Web site received 1 million hits within two weeks. The Internet outings had quickly spurred Internet outrage - a controversy fed with unanswered questions about our Internet selves.
Ethics experts say the stunt is immoral. Legal experts say it encroaches upon the gray territory of online liberties. Internet rights experts say it raises questions about privacy in cyberspace. Michael Murphy simply says his life has been nearly ruined:
"The shock is the first thing. The sudden and immediate slew of phone calls, conversations with the CEO, conversations with my wife. I have never been humiliated in quite this fashion," he said. "The nights without sleeping - it's just been unreal."
While Fortuny's prank drew far more attention, Crook's interpretation of the game is widely considered more malicious. Both men posted their personals ads on the online classifieds site Craigslist, which caters to almost 50 cities, including Las Vegas. While Fortuny posted the Craigslist responses as he received them, however, Crook engaged the men in e-mail exchanges - wooing them as Melissa, Amanda, Nicole - while actively seeking out additional information on the easier marks. Occasionally, Crook searched public records and posted street addresses on the Web site he created: Craiglist-perverts.org. (Don't bother, it's since been taken down.)
"In one city, you would be an 18-year-old girl just fresh out of high school, just started college. Or a 19-year-old girl," Crook said. "I'd change the age up a little bit with the physical stats. That way if guys were going to hop from city to city they wouldn't necessarily get suspicious."
Crook caught Murphy and then e-mailed the businessman's wife and colleagues to explain the implication of his Internet "outing:"
"Information will also wind up in search engines, so when someone calls up your company, they find out what Murphy is REALLY like, despite bragging about 'family values.' Have a pleasant day."
And then there were other men in other cities to set up.
Crook says he decided to "sting" Las Vegas because it was home for part of his adolescence - the city where he would later meet his wife at a Mormon church dance. (Crook has since left the church.) In Las Vegas, Crook figured he might catch some guys he knew from school, and so he became an 18 year-old UNLV co-ed with brown eyes and "average sized breasts" looking for "Just safe (that's the key), fun sex." He ended his ad with a promise: "Nude pics get nude pics in return."
Kevin Bowman, 34, a single Henderson homeowner and musician, replied in the clipped parlance of personals ads:
"Lots of fun and laid back. My house is discreet, w/9 guitars, 2 amps, food drink, music, games & toys or whatever you like, I am open and up front but not pushy. Ready to rock out when you are ;) Anytime!"
When Bowman asked for a photo, Crook directed him to the Craiglist-perverts Web site, where Bowman saw his e-mails, phone number and home address had been made public. Like Murphy, the first feeling was shock.
"I know that I am a good guy, I didn't think I was doing anything illegal, and I know I wasn't doing anything immoral," Bowman said. "My immediate response was this could be a lawsuit. I also thought about the security of my house. I do feel very violated."
Bowman is still considering hiring a lawyer. Murphy, who lives out of state, didn't wait - he served Crook with an injunction on Sept. 26 to take the site down. Murphy is petrified of the possibility that his moral misdeed could hurt his co-workers.
"The way that this was spun, it looks very bad. It looks like, 'Oh, we have this pervert.' I think it's fairly obvious that it has had an impact in the office," he said. "The way this hit me worst was thinking that if anybody cancels a contract over this, people loose their jobs."
Crook agreed to take down the site, and isn't worried about the possibility of litigation, explaining that a student like himself (Crook studies criminal justice) doesn't earn enough money to make a lawsuit worthwhile.
Moreover, neither Crook nor Fortuny believe they broke the law. And they may be right.
Speaking of Fortuny's Craigslist experiment, Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Oxford and Harvard universities, told the Associated Press it's unclear whether the Internet outings were illegal.
"It's one of those questions that could find its way onto a law school exam because it is comparatively new territory," Zittrain said.
Others say it was illegal - a violation of disclosure laws - but only on a state-by-state basis, depending on what type of information is made public and how it's shared.
"It all depends on who posted what in what state," said Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital-rights organization. "I think they may be overconfident thinking that they might not go to court."
Fortuny has been threatened with lawsuits four times - so far, every threat has been idle. Crook has only been served with Murphy's injunction. Crook also received an e-mail from Craigslist officials asking him to take down the site, alleging trademark infringement and unacceptable harassment of Craigslist users. The e-mail threatened legal action without assurances that Crook would "formally apologize to each of our victims," according to court documents.
Craigslist Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster refused comment, explaining via e-mail: "In our view, desire for press attention is the reason these destructive 'pranks' are pulled, such that we're reluctant to comment."
Crook is considering starting the site again - perhaps with a different name, from a different country, so it wouldn't be subject to U.S. legal scrutiny. Regardless of legal action, both pranksters and their victims are equally aware that the damage has been done. What makes Internet entrapment different from your everyday setup is that online is forever.
"The internet opens up a new wrinkle," Jeschke said, "Because really, once these private facts are disclosed, they're not coming back."
The chance to see private sexual entreaties laid out in the online public drew millions of gawkers, but it's this potential for permanent shame that gives the bogus personals ad real teeth. Crook reportedly nabbed a university professor who let slip his secret desire to sleep with a student-aged girl. Rumor has it that Fortuny's prank may have prompted a divorce. Murphy, whose wife happens to work with him, says they were in the process of ending their relationship when he contacted "Melissa." Not everyone in his company was aware, however, and coming to work has been painful - he was painted as the office pervert.
"Adults have privacy and the ability to do and be who they are and to pursue that," Murphy said. "To have that taken away, I don't even know what to equate it with. I remember coming home and having my front door open and all my belongings gone - we were robbed. But this is so beyond that. You feel so much more violated."
Fortuny says he has been championed by militant feminists who say his prank illustrated misogyny and by fundamentalist conservatives who lauded the shaming of adulterers. Crook says he has been thanked by some of the men he tricked for a lesson in thinking twice before sending e-mail to total strangers. On the other hand, both men have received death threats as well. (Crook, already infamous for creating controversial Web sites, including one that questions the Holocaust and another that chastises American troops, says he has long since grown accustomed to death threats.) Neither prankster was very apologetic.
"Maybe it was a little overboard to go posting their addresses and phone numbers, but at the same time, I only did that when it was readily accessible or they volunteered the information," Crook said. "If you are going to offer up your own phone number, that is your own fault."
Although exchange of information was predicated on deception, there's no moral high ground the pranksters can take, said Craig Walton, a UNLV ethics professor and president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics.
"In the normal, shared morality of people in our country, there is no way you could square this away," Walton said. "It's kind of an electronic lie and because of it - harm. In this case, they actively used the fruits of the lie to harm. As a philosopher of ethics, this thing stinks all the way around the track."
The silver lining, Crook and Fortuny say, is that the men won't likely be made fools twice.
"People have this illusion of privacy," Fortuny said. "They just have this general idea that, you know, you're safe on the Internet. And whatever real-life ethic you think there is about privacy simply does not exist online."
Crook says he received hundreds of responses in Las Vegas but only posted 20 because many were "just so vile that I couldn't post them."
A Las Vegas victim who asked that his name be withheld explained that he sent nude photos because it isn't illegal between consenting adults.
"I am not an overly modest man, and feel I am attractive," he said. "In the past, I have responded to other ads similar to Crook's and sent the same images, and as a result have arranged some sexual (and some nonsexual) encounters with the women who had posted the ads."
But he didn't give Crook a phone number or full name, and as a result, his nude image appeared on the Web site without identifying information. When he found out, he warned Crook that he was inviting trouble because he wasn't able to maintain the proof-of-age records purveyors of nude Web sites are required to keep. Crook took down some of the photos and cropped others to remove the genitals - a small solace for the unidentified victim. "I considered this a minor victory for the men who had suffered the humiliation of having their nude images displayed without their permission," the Las Vegas victim said.
Crook acknowledged the burden of record keeping was another reason he ultimately decided to take down the site. There are other Web sites to start, he says, and the Craigslist-perverts point was proven.
"They were expecting a romantic encounter and got something else," Crook said. "It's been done and now the debate remains."
Craigslist-perverts.org, was recently put up for sale, described as "the infamous domain name that helped expose and embarrass guys." Price: $40.