The Yomiuri Shimbun
A new form of bullying is rapidly spreading among middle and high school students in which bullies hide their identities by sending hate e-mail using the return e-mail addresses and names of other students whom the targets know.
Some receivers--upset because they mistakenly believed a bullying e-mail had been sent by the actual holder of a faked return address--became truant from school.
However, investigative sources say the act of faking e-mail addresses cannot be considered illegal under current law, making it difficult to crack down on the malicious senders.
Concerned about the situation, an official of the National Web Counseling Conference, a Tokyo-based voluntary organization that has been asked for advice in about 300 such cases this year alone, said, "[Such e-mail recipients should] consult authorities first before becoming distrustful of others."
The scheme is simple. All a sender must do to disguise an e-mail's return address is to access certain cell phone Web sites and type in any address they want to display to the receiver. The receiver will only be able to view the disguised address rather than the sender's actual e-mail address.
The method had been used by malicious perpetrators of Internet spam to fake their e-mail addresses. Since a year ago, however, it has been used among middle and high school students.
The number of cases per month reported to the National Web Counseling Conference ranged from zero to two through April last year. Last summer, however, the number started rapidly increasing, reaching 89 in April this year and 76 in May. Most of the inquiries concerned e-mail with a disguised address from unknown senders.
For example, a middle school student in Tokyo received e-mail that included abusive terms directed against the student, such as "You're disgusting" and "Die!"
After that, the student refused to go to school.
The school, which investigated the case but was unable to confirm the sender's identity, concluded that a bully had wrongfully utilized a class list of e-mail addresses used by the class as a communication backup.
In another case, a Saitama Prefecture high school boy and girl, who were dating, received e-mail with each other's names listed as senders, saying, "I'm breaking up with you" and "Delete my e-mail address [on your cell phone] right now."
After the incident caused friction between the two and made the couple break up, it was discovered that the e-mails were fakes sent by their friend, who was believed to have been feeling jealous of the couple's relationship.
'Bombing' cases on increase
Among the methods used to impersonate e-mail senders is e-mail "bombing," the simultaneous sending of up to 10,000 e-mail with false return addresses.
Malicious senders also wrongfully use free-of-charge subaddresses, easily obtainable through cell phone Web sites.
A person can have numerous subaddresses. In some bullying cases, senders used a subaddress once before disposing of it.
In another case, the receiver of a malicious e-mail was made to feel scared and unhappy after being bullied in e-mail received from an anonymous sender, who mentioned topics only known among the receiver's classmates.
E-mail that includes disparaging comments directed at the receiver is unlikely to be considered defamation under the Criminal Code because unlike messages posted on online bulletin boards, it cannot be read publicly.
However, it is possible for cell-phone users to reject e-mail that contain a disguised return address by accessing mobile phone carriers' e-mail servers and changing their security-level settings. For example, users of NTT Docomo Inc. services can reset their level of security for rejection to "weak." Users of au can set the filtering level to "low."
SoftBank's e-mail servers employ a default setting that rejects such e-mail for new subscribers.
Masashi Yasukawa, who heads the National Web Counseling Conference, said: "Damage will be eliminated if everyone changes their cell phone settings to reject such [fake return address] e-mail. Schools and parents should learn how to set it and share this information with children."