Cyberstalking: A New Word for a New Problem

Cyberstalking: A New Word for a New Problem

A young woman goes to court and gets a no-contact restraining order against a 28-year-old man who is harassing her. In retaliation, during the course of more than a year, the man posts her name and address on popular Internet websites including MySpace, Facebook, and Craigslist, inviting men to visit her home for “sexual gratification.” At the same

time, he e-mails death threats to her, according to the indictment in federal court that charges him with cyberstalking. (Wood, 2008)

Before the Internet, the prospect of being chased through cyberspace and getting bombarded with unwanted messages didn’t exist. When the potential for abuse was first recognized—that obses- sive assailants and sexual predators had a new way to discover and pursue their targets—there wasn’t an adequate phrase to characterize this disturbing situation. At first, the problem was referred to as “online abuse,” “online harassment,” or even “cyber harassment.” Those who became alarmed about inappropriate and worrisome communica- tions they were receiving via instant messaging, in their e-mail accounts, in chat rooms, and on widely accessed social networking websites faced a special problem. The authorities to whom they turned for help in moments of despair merely advised them to shut off their computers. Often they were told that the vile suggestions and ominous threats awaiting them when they logged on, or that were posted about them on others’ webpages, did not rise to the level of criminal activity.

The first anguished complainants got the runaround from law enforcement officials because it was unclear which agency, if any, had jurisdiction—local police, state police, the local prosecutor, the state attorney general’s office, or a branch of the federal government. Geographically, the jurisdiction question was whether the crime took place within the sender’s area or within the recipient’s area. Internet service providers generally were not cooperative with investigators because of concerns about respecting the privacy of their sub- scribers (Hitchcock, 2002).

By the turn of the century, the term cyber- stalking was coined to describe this potentially dangerous conduct. Within a few years, most states added provisions to their stalking and harassment statutes to outlaw the misuse of computers and electronic communications to pass along threats. The criminal justice system is becoming more responsive as police departments set up units to investigate computer crimes (as the NYPD did in


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1995), and county prosecutors establish stalking and threat assessment bureaus (as in Los Angeles) or use the staffs of existing sex crimes divisions.

However, many law enforcement agencies do not have enough adequately trained officers and prosecutors and sufficient state-of-the-art technol- ogy to successfully pursue these kinds of cases. Fur- thermore, the threats might not be taken seriously if the authorities judge the likelihood of an actual physical confrontation to be remote, especially if the harasser lives far away in another region or a different country. Self-help and support groups have sprung up on the Internet to assist and advise those who feel distressed, frustrated, and powerless to stop the unwanted communications. Voluntary online surveys filled out at these websites indicate that the majority of victims of cyberstalking are female, especially teenage girls and young women, and that most of the perpetrators are male. Many offenders seem to be complete strangers, which can be particularly unnerving because their appearances and whereabouts, as well as the credibility of their threats, are unknown (Hitchcock, 2002; Riveira, 2002; and D’Ovidio and Doyle, 2003).

Of all the persons who identified themselves as stalking victims in a NCVS-based survey in 2006, about one-fourth disclosed that they had experi- enced cyberstalking, either via their e-mail accounts (83 percent) and/or by instant messaging (35 per- cent) (Baum et al., 2009). As for pursuing a reported case of stalking in cyberspace, during 2001 only 16 percent of prosecutors’ offices nation- ally (but 77 percent of those serving large cities) handled an e-mail cyberstalking case (DeFrances, 2002). By 2005, 36 percent of prosecutors’ offices nationwide (with 82 percent of those serving more than 1 million residents) had pursued a cyberstalk- ing case (Perry, 2006).

A comparison of victims of stalking compared to cyberstalking discerned that those who experi- enced cyberstalking found that the harassment didn’t last as long, and they were not as fearful. However, they were a little more likely to report the disturbing contacts and to take self-protective measures like changing their e-mail addresses, taking time off from school or work, or avoiding

certain people, according to a detailed analysis of NCVS data (Nobles, et al., 2014).

The lifestyle-exposure and routine activities theory has been applied to the problem of being pursued through cyberspace. It appears that adding strangers as friends on social media sites, harassing other people online, attempting to hack into other people’s social network accounts, and associating with “deviant peers” online (for example, engaged in sending sexually explicit images or advances) are associated with higher odds of becoming a cyber- stalking victim, according to a web-based survey of college students’ experiences (Reyns et al., 2011).

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