Last week, while most of the world shuddered as "I Love You" popped up in K-mail in-boxes, some football fans found an even more troubling message on their screens: PATRIOTS, JETS TO SWAP QB'S, PICKS. That, as horrified New England backers discovered, was what Sean Salisbury was apparently reporting on ESPN.com. Irate fans bombarded the Patriots' office with phone calls wondering how their team could deal Drew Bledsoe for Ray Lucas. Savvier Web users, however, identified the story as a ruse.
A prankster had created a replica of an ESPN.com Web page, on which he posted his ersatz report. He E-mailed the URL to a friend, who sent it to a few others, and so on. The message directed computer users to the counterfeit Web page with the Internet address www.go.to/espn.com. (ESPN.com's is www.espn.go.com.) "The URLs were similar but not identical," says ESPN.com executive editor John Marvel. "Besides, Sean's never broken a story, so we were suspicious right off the bat."
Marvel quickly located the hacker and phoned him. "When I told him who I was," Marvel says, "the first thing out of his mouth was, 'Oh, s—-!' He was very cooperative and took [the page] down immediately, so we didn't pursue any legal recourse."
It's not the first time ESPN.com has been targeted by cyber-opportunists. Thick-fingered sports enthusiasts who mistakenly type in www.eson.com or www.espm.com on their browsers will be taken to sites called, respectively, Sex-horse (which has plenty to do with fillies but not with thoroughbreds) and Ashley's Playground (which isn't a Judds shrine). Says Marvel, "You can imagine the guy surfing at home explaining to his wife, 'Oh, honey, I must have committed a typo again.' "