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THE DARK SIDE OF CYBERSPACE: Virtual reality now harbors actual criminals and addicts who shun the real world

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"I NEED help,'' writes a woman calling herself Fraggle Rocks.

``I'm an addict. I think I spend my whole life on IRC.... I even got married on there. See my ring?''

She shows the ``ring'' on-screen - *O - followed by a computer smiley > (turn the page clockwise 90 degrees to see it).

The vehicle of her addiction is the IRC or Internet Relay Chat, a kind of electronic party line on the computer.

Amid all the hoopla about the Internet and its benefits, there is a darker side to this worldwide web of computers. On-line addiction. Computer crime.

These are the most extreme symptoms of the Internet's troubling legacy.

In its present form, the Internet offers freedom without responsibility. Virtually anything goes in today's virtual worlds.

A British court, for example, heard last year how Paul Bedworth had broken into some 10,000 computer systems in France, Germany, Russia, India, and the United States.

Two of his accomplices pleaded guilty and were given six-month prison terms.

The lawyers for Mr. Bedworth, however, claimed their client was innocent because he was addicted to computers. The jury acquitted him.

On-line crime is the most serious challenge on the Internet.

``Technical crime is definitely increasing at logarithmic proportions,'' says Carl-ton Fitzpatrick, a senior instructor with the Financial Fraud Institute, part of the United States Treasury Department in Glynco, Ga. ``The technology, and the criminal use of the technology, is probably evolving faster than our use of it.... It is a marvelous tool for criminals.''

In some ways, any crime can be computer-related. Drug lords need computers to track their organizations every bit as much as corporate executives do. ``Any sophisticated financial crime today is a computer crime,'' Mr. Fitzpatrick says. Technical or on-line crime focuses on illegal activity conducted through the Internet or other on-line service.

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