Every online scam begins more or less the same—a random e-mail, a sketchy attachment.But every so often, a new type of hacker comes along. He secretly burrows his way into your hard drive, then into your life. It was a Saturday night, not much happening in her Long Beach, California, neighborhood, so high school senior Melissa Young was home messing around on her computer.

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But what if they It's a question that James Kelly and his girlfriend, Amy Wright, never thought they'd have to entertain. Amy, a 20-year-old brunette at the University of California at Irvine, was on her laptop when she got an IM from a random guy nicknamed mistahxxxrightme, asking her for webcam sex. Amy told the guy off, but he IM'd again, saying he knew all about her, and to prove it he started describing her dorm room, the color of her walls, the pattern on her sheets, the pictures on her walls. It was like Amy'd slipped into a stalker movie. Amy watched in horror as the picture materialized on the screen: a shot of her in that very room, naked on the bed, having webcam sex with James. The hacker fired off a note to James's ex-girlfriend Carla Gagnon: "nice video I hope you still remember this if you want to chat and find out before I put it online hit me up." Attached was a video still of her in the nude. The campus police were in no position to handle a case like this.

Then the hacker contacted James directly, boasting that he had control of his computer, and it became clear this wasn't about sex: He was toying with them. But the instant she phoned the dispatcher, a message chimed on her screen. Whoever devised the malware—a sophisticated program capable of dodging antivirus software—clearly had a leg up on university cops.

As Mistah X taunted James, his IMs filling the screen, James called Amy: He had the creep online. They talked about calling the cops, but no sooner had James said the words than the hacker reprimanded him. The task of hunting him down fell to agents Tanith Rogers and Jeff Kirkpatrick of the FBI's cyber program in Los Angeles.

They chatted with friends, posted pictures, and when they were tired, stretched out on their beds to rest.

But at some point, each of them looked up and noticed the same strange thing: the tiny light beside their webcam glowing.

At first they figured it was some kind of malfunction, but when it happened repeatedly—the light flicking on, then off—the girls felt a chill. The more ubiquitous cameras become, the less we're aware they're even there. She ran into her bathroom and slammed the door behind her.

One by one, they gazed fearfully into the lenses, wondering if someone was watching and if, perhaps now, they were looking into the eye of something scary after all. They stare out at us blankly from our phones and laptops, our Xboxes and i Pads, a billion eyes and ears just waiting to be turned on. As she pleaded for the police to come quickly, she reached into the shower and cranked the water all the way up, hoping the hacker couldn't hear her.

Attached to the note was a file labeled simply SCARY. Yeah, the IM had come from her account, but she hadn't sent it. That night, Suzy's 20-year-old friend Nila Westwood got the same note, the same attachment. When she called her friend to see what she'd missed, things actually got freaky: Suzy'd never sent a thing.

Melissa wondered why her goof-off sister was IM'ing from the next room instead of just padding over—she wasn't usually that lazy—so she walked over to see what was up. Unlike Melissa, she opened it, expecting, say, a video of some guy stapling his lip to his chin on You Tube. The girls pieced together the clues and agreed: Suzy's AOL account had been hacked.

For the next couple of weeks, the girls remained watchful for malware, insidious software capable of wreaking all sorts of havoc.

But with no sign of trouble on their machines—no slow performance, no deleted files, no alerts from antivirus programs—they pretty much forgot about it. Suzy, Melissa, and Nila went about their lives online and off.