Minority college students in America are being attacked by racists who use email as their weapon. The senders shield their true addresses and identities, much as Ku Klux Klansmen hide under hoods. 48 Hours Correspondent Harold Dow explores the problem, and the challenge of tracking down the culprits.
Rahman Culver, a student at the University of Maryland, got some unwanted email last September. "This was the first message: 'Hey, nigger, get the fuck off campus. How did your stupid black ass get here?'" Culver recalls.
Culver received this email message from somewhere in cyberspace: "Go smoke some crack or rob some old lady. That's what you people are good at."
He doesn't know who sent it or where it came from.
"If you decide to stay, you'd better watch your back," the message says.
The fact that such a message arrived via the Internet made him feel "very violated," Culver says. "I'm a senior African-American studies major," he says. "I study things like this, you know, the civil rights movement,...where people are threatened with this type of repression and intimidation every day. But it's much different to read about it on a page, but yet see it right in front of your face."
Culver has become a target for a new type of racism, hate that found him through the Internet. Why? It may be because he's visibly proud of his African-American roots, and everyone knows it. He's also the editor of the university's African-American newspaper, The Black Explosion.
On Oct. 5, Culver got a second email. "If you don't get off campus within the next 48 hours, me and my boys are gonna lynch your black animal ass on the nearest tree," he reads.
"I was angry at the fact that someone, you know, thought they had a place to threaten my life, you know, threaten my existence on this earth," he says.
The email's source was "Secret Squirrel," a name used to hide the sender's real identity. Culver went to the police, who began an investigation.
One week later a third email arrived. "Tonight's the night, nigger," it read. "We're coming for you. We're gonna lynch your nigger ass up on the nearest tree. No government nor NAACP is gonna save you tonight. Your black ass is mine."
"I thought to myself, 'OK, if this is real, I have to watch myself tonight. I have to watch how I'm walking; I have to watch how I cross the street, watch for that suspicious, unfortunate speeding car,'" Culver recalls.
Today, hate doesn't just hide behind a mask; it slinks around the Internet. And it reaches directly into people's homes and dorm rooms with just the click of a mouse.
"History repeats itself time and time again. We go to the Ku Klux Klan," Culver says. "But there is always someone behind that barrier."
Last October, 68 minority students at Penn State University opened their email and rad this message sent by someone who used the name The Patriot: "You niggers will never survive on our campus. Face it, your numbers are dwindling and your days are numbered. You baboons make a lot of money for our campus, but you must stay in your place. I will be on patrol. Long live America." In the message, America was spelled with three Ks.
The students' reactions included the following:
"Oh, yeah, it made me very angry," says Jennifer Geacone. "It made me angry to think that people can do this to you and get this up close and personal to you through something like email."
Adds Chris Waters: "I felt very vulnerable to the fact that I thought someone like this was in my class, that, you know, someone sitting behind me, someone sitting in front of me, someone I passed every day could be thinking like this."
Penn State police investigators Thomas Sowerby and Dwight Smith admit they are stumped.
Officer Sowerby says the investigation has been very stressful: "We want to get answers for the students. But we've run into some roadblocks."
The roadblocks begin with the most basic information contained in an email: the data in the header that identifies the origin of the message.
"The originating IP is part of the info within the headers that we're looking for," Sowerby says, examining an email sent by one of the perpetrators. "We can punch a number into the computer here....And you can see that particular message was sent from a computer at Temple University."
But that Temple University computer didn't require users to identify themselves. "It's on the honor system, how you register yourself," he says.
Plus, the sender or senders used free Internet email services that require customers to fill in an online form identifying themselves, but don't verify that information in any way.
"So the information turned out to be bogus on some of the tracings we've done on those accounts," the officer explains.
At the University of Maryland, where police also are stumped, Culver and his friend Omar Jenkins conducted their own investigation. They ran into a roadblock, too. Culver's emails came from a server known as an anonymous re-mailer.
"The re-mailer will then get rid of the header information, like where the message originally came from. It also gets rid of who originally sent the message," Jenkins says.
This way the person who originally sent it is cloaked, as is that person's location. That's how easy it is for a racist to hide in cyberspace.
Although the emails have stopped on both campuses for now, students like Culver say they won't be intimidated, even if the hate mail resumes.
Are the students living in fear?
"Not of this," Culver says. "This is foolishness. This is cowardice."
"I will not be stopped by this type of behavior. I'm going to continue to do what I have to do. An so, whoever is out there, whoever sent it, if you thought it was funny, I have the last laugh," he says. "The joke's on you."