It's the equivalent of walking into a room full of strangers and sharing your deepest and most personal thoughts on politics, relationships and other day-to-day issues.
Internet chat rooms, where strangers can talk anonymously through their computers, and e-mail have turned the World Wide Web into more than just a research tool for the millions who use it. It can also be a vehicle for making threats.
Illegal activity using the Internet is rising in Richmond County, going from "nothing to something," said Lt. Jimmy Young, head of the forgery and white collar crime investigative division of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department. "About everybody with a computer now has Internet service, but along with that comes all the problems."
Terroristic threats in e-mail and counterfeiting are some of the activities in the area that investigators have faced in the past year, Lt. Young said.
However, the majority of complaints concern statements made in Internet chat rooms.
The Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colo., in April produced a lot of rumors and threats on the Internet, Lt. Young said.
"We got just barraged with stuff coming in after the Columbine incident where supposedly there were things being posted or said on the Internet about Columbine," he said. "That's where it gets tough on us in these chat rooms and there are so many of those. We had one come across that said, `If you thought Columbine was bad, you haven't seen anything till you see what happens at a school in the Augusta area,' or something similar to that."
Finding the Internet service provider enabled investigators to trace the statement to a local youth. It turned out that the producer of the message was not serious and was "goofing around," Lt. Young said.
"The whole thing is, you never know and that's why you've got to look into these things because you'll come off as the biggest idiot in the world if something were to happen and you knew something was there.," he said. "It's the one that's liable to slip through the cracks that could come back and bite you."
During the weeks after Columbine, Lt. Young estimated, his department received seven or eight notices about threats made by local Internet users.
Chat room monitors are responsible for reporting any threats that may be construed as dangerous or illegal to the proper authorities, Lt. Young said. With e-mail threats, investigators determine the provider the person sending the message is using. Then they obtain a subpoena to get information on the source.
Both methods are legal under privacy laws and are covered by the terms of agreement that most Internet users sign with their providers.
"The right to privacy does not include making threats," said Bill Bowcutt, chief assistant district attorney for Richmond County.
But solely identifying the phone line where a threatening message came from and whether the threat is real is half the investigative battle.
"You would have your standard issues of whether the threat is real, but the interesting twist is how you determine who did it," Mr. Bowcutt said.
Many households use a single log-in name and password for Internet access, Mr. Bowcutt said. Also, people who do not log off leave themselves open for anyone to use their Internet access for anything, including making serious threats.
There have been cases nationwide where individuals have made threats directed at people using the Internet under someone else's log-in name, Mr. Bowcutt said.
In cases involving serious e-mail or chat room threats, a person could be charged with making terroristic threats or misdemeanor simple assault, Lt. Young said.
Inciting or threatening messages on the Internet are consistent with the same kinds made by mail or phone calls, Mr. Bowcutt said.
However, Mr. Bowcutt does not know of any cases involving Internet threats reaching his office. The issue of Internet threats is still at an insignificant level in Augusta, he said.
There have been times where Richmond County investigators have needed help from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or Secret Service office in Atlanta with computer crime investigations. Most of these cases involve retrieving information off a computer's hard drive in counterfeiting crimes, Lt. Young said.
"We don't have the equipment and expertise to do what is called mirroring the hard drive," he said.
But that doesn't stop investigators from getting the evidence. Lt. Young said that in one case the GBI computer technicians were able to tap into a hard drive and pull up counterfeit money, checks and ID's even though the information was not saved.
With the Internet becoming more popular, Lt. Young said, problems surrounding it will increase.
"I venture to say it will probably rise," he said. "You get more cars on the road, you're going to get more wrecks. Same thing there:You get more people on the Internet, there are going to be more incidents."
Reach Mark Mathis at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.