It was a terrific story, and Richard Sandza knew it. In four columns, which his editors at Newsweek headlined "Night of the Hackers," Sandza led the reader through the disembodied and mostly illegal world of bright young men who play a kind of cross-country electronic chicken with their home computers. Using long-distance telephone lines that they break into by duplicating telephone company tones, Sandza wrote, the hackers log onto each other's underground "bulletin boards" to trade surreptitiously obtained corporate telephone numbers and passwords, or post valid credit card numbers, or carry on silent computer-screen conversations at hours when good high school students are supposed to be in bed.
Sandza's story ran in the Nov. 12 issue of the magazine. That week, as his wife was beginning labor with their first child, the telephone calls started coming. "Montana Wildhack?" Sandza had needed a handle for his foray amid the hackers, so he had chosen the name of a character from Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five." "We're gonna disconnect your telephone." "We're gonna blow up your house."
Sandza, as he writes in this week's Newsweek, had been targeted for the hackers' revenge. The calls came first -- dozens of anonymous calls placed with auto-dial modems, or illegally rigged conference calls with what sounded like gangs of high school sophomores laughing into the telephone. Then there was a suggestion that a correctly trespassed computer might turn off the power to Sandza's house. Then there was a flurry of computer bulletin-board messages, with various fiercely named parties like Unknown Warrior or Storm Bringer discussing Sandza's alleged offenses, until one bulletin board placed Sandza on "teletrial," with judge and jury contemplating his fate.
Then they got into his credit card files. An anonymous caller told Sandza what had happened. A hacker had broken into the computer of the conglomerate TRW, the caller said, and from its massive consumer credit records the hacker had pulled all Sandza's credit card numbers, his wife's name and their home address. The information -- including the numbers, which might be used for almost any over-the-telephone credit-card purchase -- was turning up on underground bulletin boards all over the country.
Sandza, who had already asked the telephone and power companies to make sure his service was not interrupted by computer order, took the call seriously. The caller had accurately named every charge card in his wallet. "I called TRW and said, 'I'm changing my credit-card numbers,' " he says. "But if they can call tomorrow and get my new credit-card numbers, what's the point? And they said they couldn't do anything about that."
Indeed, the details of the Hackers' Revenge, which by Wednesday had begun making their way over the national wires and television news, have caused some agitation both at TRW and at the Lenox Savings Bank, a small Massachusetts institution that seems to have unwittingly provided the access to Sandza's TRW credit report. When Sandza asked TRW for a copy of his own report, he found that the Lenox bank -- which should have had no interest whatever in his credit rating -- had made a computer inquiry to TRW. As a TRW customer, the Lenox bank would need only its password and the correct telephone number to make such a request, so it seemed obvious to Sandza that a hacker had gotten hold of the Lenox password and used it to break in.
A vice-president at the Lenox bank says the bank has no idea at this point how the password might have been released, and that there is now a new password. Delia Fernandez, a Southern California-based TRW public affairs director, says she is not certain precisely what happened either, but that TRW is very, very interested in finding out.
"Illegal access itself is a serious problem, whether it be done by a hacker or a private investigator, or whatever it is," she says. "These people, whether they're children or not, have committed a serious crime and they should know that even an attempted break-in leaves us enraged."
None of which alters the fact that some high school students appear to have broken into computer files in which her company keeps the records and active credit-card numbers of more than 120 million people. The problem, Fernandez says, is with subscribers who become careless about their passwords -- giving the word out to callers posing as TRW representatives, for example.
"You can put all the sophisticated bells and whistles on a computer that you can think of to keep it secure," she says. "But if someone who has the legitimate right to get into the system wittingly or unwittingly releases the password to get into the system, then you've lost that security."
Sandza, who now has new credit-card numbers, is still waiting to see what damage might have been wrought with the old ones. "We don't know," he says. He has not abandoned Montana Wildhack, the alter ego that carried him into the computer underground when a Silicon Valley source first gave Sandza a few hackers' bulletin-board telephone numbers. Logging on as Wildhack, Sandza has put up a spirited defense as he is subjected to "teletrial" on the underground BBS (Bulletin Board System) called Dragonfire. The charge, in the language of his anonymous accusers, is "endangering hacks and phreaks" -- the odd spelling is a reference to "phonephreaks," or the hackers who use electronic tones to steal long-distance telephone time. The rules of the trial are rigorously argued, with Ax Murderer sitting in as judge and Storm Bringer offering his services as public defender should Sandza not locate suitable counsel.
"One of my biggest problems is where do I stop being a reporter and when do I start being a cop?" Sandza says. Particularly disturbing, he says, was being told that hackers had eight or nine other passwords into TRW and would pass them on if Sandza wanted. "These kids have started asking me if I'm going to press charges." He thinks not, but he says he is angry about "the TRW thing."
But even with the disruption to his own home life and credit card collection, Sandza cannot seem to shake a certain tenderness for these teen-age boys, many of them alone in their rooms at some terrible hour of the night, working elaborate mischief with machines that still make most adults' eyes glaze over. Sandza, who has never been overwhelmed by computers or elaborate machinery, still remembers the time that a computer-emergency cry for help from a Newsweek colleague interrupted him as he was on a conference call with a collection of hackers. When he came back to the telephone the hackers pressed Sandza for details about what had gone wrong with the computer, and Sandza obliged, adding that he was the only one in the office who knew much about computers at all.
"And this one kid kind of piped up from the depths of wherever he was," Sandza says. "He says, 'You know how you describe the people in your office -- they don't know a thing about them?' He says, 'Well, that's how our parents are. We can't talk to our parents about these things. They don't know, and they don't want to know.' "