His name is John, and he's a recovering hacker.
For two years, John says, his computer was his best friend. He spent hour after hour holed away in his bedroom, gabbing via modem with faceless fellow hackers about their latest scams--all the while, using access codes to evade those pesky long-distance charges.
Then a Southern California telephone company put an end to his fun. In an out-of-court settlement, he and his parents make monthly payments to reimburse the firm for the thousands of dollars of service John filched.
The 19-year-old Orange County college student, who requested anonymity, today says that his "bust"--though devastating at the time--was a blessing in disguise.
"Now I'm exploring other aspects of life," he says. "I've started to do things I didn't do before because I was so engrossed in my computer. I've taken up guitar, I'm going out with friends. I'm not dependent on my computer anymore as an escape from reality."
John's brush with high-tech crime began harmlessly enough. As a young computer whiz who "never really fit in at school," he discovered his own clique of buddies through computer bulletin boards. "All those phone calls started to get expensive," he says.
Eventually--after he proved himself worthy of the honor--his new-found friends introduced him to the illicit bulletin boards through which they shared access codes and hacking software programs.
"Everybody reassured me that it was OK (to skirt telephone charges) and that everybody else did it," John says. "Once I got involved, I liked the system. It made it easier to conceal from my parents how much I was using the phone."
The "elite circle of hackers," as John calls them, viewed their hobby more as an intellectual challenge than as theft. Their shenanigans went beyond swiping telephone service to deciphering bank credit card numbers.
"When someone would share a credit card number, they got a lot of recognition," John says. "Everyone would be all, 'Wow, thanks, I'm going to order me a brand-new modem with that.' "
To climb the social ladder within the fraternity, members boastfully divulged the handy numbers they had uncovered: "It was a sign of greatness that, supposedly, you had so many codes you didn't know what to do with them, so you were sharing the wealth."
Entering the furtive world of computer hackers was like becoming a character in a video game. "They all had handles, or aliases, like Superman and Maxwell Smart," John says. "The younger kids are influenced by super-heroes and comic books.
"Some of these people appeared to be gods. There was one group known as the Humble Gods. They thought of themselves as leaders of this little underground business. For the most part, hacking is just trying to be someone you're not, trying to present this image of greatness."
That mystic world of knights and dragons came to a crashing halt last year when one of the telephone companies John had conquered rang up his parents and tattled. "My mom and dad were pretty upset, pretty ashamed," he says.
"My first emotion was anger. I don't know if I was angry at myself for hacking, or at the people who told me I could get away with it, or at the telephone company for catching me. But then I started to realize that what I had done was wrong and that it was time to pay the piper."