Office Max The Business Journal Kemper Insurance Companies

October 27, 1997

Law enforcement tries to catch up with online stalkers


Jessica Lloyd-Rogers Special To The Business Journal

Ask the average person about the dark side of the Internet and the answers might vary from child pornography to hate groups.

Hardly anyone will mention the fastest-growing threat--stalking.

Online stalking, or "cyberstalking," contains the same elements as physical stalking outlined in the state's penal code: "Willfully, maliciously and repeatedly following or harassing another person ..."

Experts say an estimated 200,000 people are physically stalking someone, and 80 percent of the victims are female. More than 1.5 million Americans either have been or are victims of stalkers.

That same threat now stretches to the electronic world.

The same technology that allows people to talk to friends and relatives who live in other parts of the world also provides someone with the power and the means to pursue, harass and threaten.

And law enforcement officials are having a hard time catching up to these criminals.

"The electronic laws have not caught up to our world," said San Jose police det. Keith Lowry, who has handled six cyberstalking cases in the past year.

Mr. Lowry is a member of the high-tech crime unit, one of the few in the country. However, many cyberstalking cases won't make it to the unit for a variety of reasons.

"Where most officers take a whack in the knees is on the second part of the stalking law ... a credible threat must be present," said Mr. Lowry.

According to the law, a "credible threat" may be verbal, written or implied by a pattern of conduct or any combination made with the intent and ability to carry out the threat "so as to cause the person who is the target of the threat to reasonably fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her immediate family."

Cyberstalkers use a variety of techniques. They may initially use the Net to identify and track their victims, send threatening e-mails, and post libelous attacks in chat rooms or on World Wide Web sites.

Spamming is also a favorite activity, either to the victim or to others in the victim's name.

In other cases, the cyberstalker will take a more indirect, but more damaging route by posting the name, address and phone number of their victim on the Net, often in newsgroups or ads, exposing the person to further harassment.

When someone realizes he or she has become a victim, the first step is trying to file a police report.

"The victim must demand--demand--a report be taken," said San Jose police sgt. Dave Wysuph of the domestic violence unit.

Even if no investigation occurs, the victim must begin establishing a paper trail.

"And at every new incident, the victim needs to call ... and add to their report," he said.

The importance of documentation is critical if the victim hopes to prove that a pattern of conduct exists, thus creating the credible threat.

If a police report is taken, it may be filed under harassment or terroristic threatening. Since experts estimate that two-thirds of all stalking cases involve an ex-husband or former lover, most stalking cases are assigned to the domestic violence unit.

Cyberstalkers are "just a little bit smarter," said Mr. Lowry, who added that tracking a cyberstalker is a time-consuming process.

But he admits that there have been few prosecutions.

Once the stalker is identified, Mr. Lowry said an officer will go talk to him or her. "They [stalkers] usually stop when they know they have been identified," Mr. Lowry said.

"But many of them have not broken the law. They have not provided a credible threat."

There have been cases that have reached the district attorney's office, but at this point, the stalker will most likely be charged with a misdemeanor, such as harassment or terroristic threatening.

In 1990, California was the first state to pass a stalking law. Before that, police were powerless to act unless there had been a physical attack. The law was updated in 1993 to include civil remedies for stalking victims.

However, there is still no specific language for online stalking.

"The real problem comes in showing that the law is a problem and doesn't go far enough," said Mr. Lowry.

Because of this, victims have banded together, with family and friends, to conduct their own investigations.

One such victim is Jayne Hitchcock.

For months, she received threatening e-mail and even had her name, phone number and address posted on various sites on the World Wide Web.

"It was hell," she said. "The phone rang constantly. Meanwhile, we were afraid these sex maniacs might drop by."

Ms. Hitchcock and her friends did their own investigation through the Internet, finally tracing the posts to Woodside Literary Agency. Someone in the area went to the agency and sent a description to the group.

In January, armed with her information, Ms. Hitchcock filed a civil suit for $10 million. The harassment has continued, but since the suit has been filed, the FBI and the attorney general's office have gotten involved.

"Someone has to let the public know that cyberstalking and online harassment does exist and in almost all of our 50 states," said Ms. Hitchcock.

"There are no laws to protect the victims. If this happened to you, your relatives, significant other, or your friends, you'd be outraged at what the harasser(s) can get away with."

Jessica L. Lloyd-Rogers is a freelance writer based in Santa Clara.

© 1997, The Business Journal

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