Four years ago, the word cyberstalking hadn’t even been coined yet. No one knew what to call it then; some called it online harassment, online abuse or cyber-harassment. And we’re not talking two people arguing with each other or calling each other bad names. These were incidents where it had gone beyond an annoyance and had become frightening. As more and more incidents became known and victims reached out to law enforcement for help, all they received were either blank stares or were told to turn off their computer. States didn’t have laws in place to protect victims and their harassers kept up the harassment, escalating sometimes to real-life stalking situations.
So, what is cyberstalking? It’s when an online incident that spirals so out of control, it gets to a point where the victim fears for their life.
Case example 1:
In 1999, “Nanci” went into a Worcester, Massachusetts romance chat room. Another chatter commented that he did not like her username. She defended herself and soon the two began arguing with each other in the chat room. But the argument didn’t end. Each time Nanci tried to log onto the chat room, her harasser was there, waiting for her, and became more aggressive. At one point, he told her he’d hired someone else in the chat room to beat her up; another time he posted information he’d found out about her online, who her father was and where she lived, then said he wouldn’t be happy until she was “six feet under the ground.”
He’d become a cyberstalker.
Justifiably horrified, Nanci went to her local police, who basically laughed at her and told her there was nothing to be done. Yes, even with the implied death threat. The harasser became more aggressive and began e-mailing or Instant Messaging Nanci, telling her what kind of car she was driving, where she’d been earlier that day, and the name of her daughter. Nanci went to the State Police, the county District Attorney, then the State Attorney General. Each one pointed fingers at the other, claiming they couldn’t help her, but that the other department should.
Nanci finally hired a lawyer, filed a civil suit, then contacted local media. When she appeared in court with TV journalists following her, the D.A. backed down and began helping her. Charges were finally filed against her cyberstalker and a trial date has been set for later this year.
But it shouldn’t have gone that far.
“Cyberstalking often receives a low priority in computer crime cases,” says Greg Larson, Vice President of Internet Crimes, Inc., “Police departments usually have limited manpower for computer crimes, so in importance, these cases seem to put on the back burner until a serious incident occurs.”
Case Example 2:
Amy Boyer was 20, lived at home with her parents in Nashua, New Hampshire, was employed at a local dentist’s office and had a boyfriend. In early October of 1999, she logged onto the web with her mother to check out travel rates for a trip she was planning. Neither one of them thought twice about being online, yet neither knew how close they were to discovering danger.
On October 15th, Amy was ambushed outside the dentist’s office as she got in her car, was shot and killed, then her killer committed suicide.
For days, the police had no idea why this young woman was killed by a young man. There seemed to be no connection to the two of them and no motive.
Then when police confiscated the killer’s computer, they found the connection - two web sites devoted to Amy Boyer, created by Liam Youens, who had been carrying a torch for her ever since junior high school. But he did not know Amy and Amy never knew Liam. He’d seen her in the hallway one day, became infatuated and his “love” grew from there.
As he saw Amy with a new boyfriend, his love became anger, then hate, fueled by two web sites he created, one on Tripod, the other on Geocities. In the pages, he kept a diary of sorts, rambling from “loving” Amy to hating her, then declaring that she should die and he would go with her. At one point, he planned a Columbine-style raid on Nashua High School. He even posted photos of the guns and rifles he’d use and explained how he purchased them, then how he purchased information about Amy. Once he found where she worked, three days later she was dead.
A cyberstalking victim? Yes. But like a dangerous intersection that doesn’t get a stop light until someone dies, Amy died before anyone took cyberstalking seriously.
WHAT LAW ENFORCEMENT IS DOING NOW
Law enforcement agencies now know that cyberstalking is a very real issue that needs to be dealt with, from local police departments to state police, the FBI, and US Postal Inspection Service, among others. Many are asking their officers to learn how to use the net and work with online victim groups such as WHOA (Women Halting Online Abuse), SafetyEd and CyberAngels. Others are attending seminars on cyberstalking being held throughout the country by companies such as Advanced Professional Seminars. And many law enforcement agencies are turning to companies like Internet Crimes, Inc. for one-day workshops where their officers can learn how to track down cyberstalkers and how to handle victims.
“I’ve found there is a need and a desire on the part of law enforcement to gain skills in the areas of combating online crime,” comments Henry Quinlan, founder of Advanced Professional Seminars. “The future presents some interesting problems for law enforcement, especially in the area of recruiting people with computer skills.”
Larson finds law enforcement is willing to learn, to grow and to do what they swore to do: Protect and Serve - online and offline.
“Law enforcement has come a long way in the past several years in recognizing the computer as a implement in criminal activity,” he claims. “I’m seeing a sharp increase in the calls I receive requesting training and assistance, especially in cyberstalking cases. As a result, our ‘Cybercrime: Stalking, Harassment, and Violence on the Internet’ workshop is currently our most popular program for both law enforcement agencies and campus police.”
With almost 20 states with cyberstalking or related laws, a federal cyberstalking law waiting for Senate approval and several other states with laws pending, cyberstalking is finally getting noticed not only by law enforcement, but by the media, too. Maybe not the attention victims want, but the word is finally getting out there. And the police are listening.
Cyberstalkers feel they are anonymous and can get away with anything
When caught, most cyberstalkers say they didn’t mean to do it, or for it to go so far
Most incidents are not related to romances gone sour; in fact, a majority of the cases are stranger-on-stranger
WHOA, SafetyEd and CyberAngels estimate they get up to 400 requests for help each week from cyberstalking victims - that’s over 20,000 reported cases each year
Over 90% of victims are women
It’s estimated there may be as many as 475,000 online victims each year (US Dept. of Justice Cyberstalking Study, released in August 1999)
By 2003, NUA Internet Surveys estimates there will be five hundred million people online - if even 1% become victims, that’s still five million people!
J.A. Hitchcock is a regular contributor to Compute Me. Visit her web site at jahitchcock.com.