When a woman in North Hollywood, Calif., spurned Gary Dellapenta's advances, the 50-year-old security guard got back at her via the Internet. Using her name, he posted personal ads describing fantasies of a "home-invasion rape." Six men appeared at her apartment over five months to take her up on Dellapenta's offer. Sentenced to six years in prison in 1999, he was the first person jailed for cyberstalking.
Dellapenta met his victim off-line, at church, but more often the first encounter occurs online. There are few hard statistics on cyberstalking. But Working to Halt Online Abuse, a group that helps cyberstalking victims, says it receives reports of nearly 100 cases a week. The stalkers meet their victims, according to the group, mainly via e-mail, chat groups, newsgroups and instant messaging.
Jayne Hitchcock, president of WHOA, believes that her cyberstalker found her when she got into a controversy in a writers' newsgroup. Her stalker sent sexually explicit e-mails with forged addresses purporting to be from her. One contained her home address and phone number and said she was interested in sado-sexual fantasies. At one point, Hitchcock was getting 30 phone calls a day. She was repeatedly mail-bombed barraged with enough e-mails to shut down her computer. Her stalker also mail-bombed her husband, her literary agent and her colleagues at the University of Maryland.
Hitchcock is lobbying states to enact specialized cyberstalking laws. So far, 33 have. In most of the cases that whoa tracks, contacting the offender's internet service provider is enough to make the activity stop. But more than 16% of the time, victims have to go to the police.
When I was done spying on Joel, I gave him a quick rundown on what I had seen. He was fine about the book proposal. He'd been having second thoughts about it anyway. He had an explanation for the $112.76 that involved the high price of American CDs in Iceland. And he pointed out that he had not added to the snarky e-mail about our co-worker. All he did was read it. Then he told me that for the good stuff I should have spied on his home PC. That's where he does his most interesting web surfing, he said. He went off on a brief discourse about the various kinds of hard-core pornographic pop-ups that show up when he visits soft-core sites. Joel also told me that he keeps all his financial data on his home computer. Interesting. Come to think of it, I've always wondered about his salary. Joel, I owe you an e-birthday card. Be sure to open it at home.
With reporting by David Jackson/Los Angeles, Laura Locke/San Francisco and Elaine Shannon/Washington