Cyberstalking is a recent form of criminal behavior involving persistent threats or unwanted attention using the Internet and other means of computer communications.
With more and more people going “online,” the opportunity to target someone on the Internet is becoming limitless. Cyberstalkers visit chat rooms, discussion forums or message boards in search of victims. The range of cyberstalking can range from aggressive and hostile email, chat room bullying, leaving abusing messages in guest books to sending e-viruses, tracing a victim’s computer and identity theft.
Like regular stalkers, cyberstalkers want to intimidate and control their victims. Cyberstalkers do it with the use of the Internet. The Internet can be used to trace the victim’s real name and address. For instance, it is remarkably easy to find out what party a victim is planning to attend and when by checking the information on a site such as Facebook.
The use of technology makes locating a victim easier than ever before. Anyone can type in certain key words into the computer which will bring up a myriad of internet datafurnishing companies that supply private records and information online, either free or for a nominal fee. The internet can do what private detectives of the past only dreamed of doing.
States are attempting to deal with this new form of criminal behavior. Early in 2009, the state of California enacted a set of new stalking laws. These laws make it a misdemeanor to publish information on the Internet which describes a teacher or his or her family or mentions where the teacher lives with the intent of having another person commit a crime against that teacher. The penalty is up to one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine. This law can also be invoked to protect people other than teachers against cyber-threats. It is now considered a misdemeanor in California to place any person in fear of his or her safety by means of Internet threats and threats using cell phones, PDAs, video recorders or pagers.
Several cases of cyberstalking have been prosecuted under California’s new cyberstalking laws. In the state’s very first case, the state prosecuted a man who used the internet to impersonate his victim, a young woman who’d spurned his attentions. Pretending to be the victim, the man posted her phone number and address and stated that she had rape fantasies she wanted fulfilled. Strange men started to show up at the victim’s apartment ready to rape her and became angry when she refused. The cyberstalker was sentenced to six years in prison.
In another case, a graduate student from the University of San Diego cyberstalked five female students for a year. He sent hundreds of threatening emails. The graduate student was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. He told police the women were ridiculing him. The victims, in fact, had never met this man.
Prior to California’s anti-cyberstalking laws, the crime was difficult to prosecute. Deidre Des Jardins, a student at UC-Santa Cruz, started getting violet emails from her ex-boyfriend. Some threats were directed at her, others dealt with violence in general. Local law enforcement agents were unable to do anything since the act of cyberstalking had not been clearly defined as a crime. The campus police, also, were unable to act, even though the threatening emails continued for several years. Deidre was told that since some of the messages dealt with violence in general and not specifically with her, it didn’t fit the definition of cyberstalking. Her ex-boyfriend was never arrested.
Cyberstalking can evolve into real-life stalking where the victim is harassed by excessive telephone calls, vandalism, trespassing and even physical assault.
Some cyberstalkers know their victims. Others have some kind of imaginary connection to the ones they stalk. It is not unusual for a celebrity cyberstalker to become violent when his fantasy is threatened. In a recent news story, a cyberstalker sent cyberthreats to a Knox County state’s attorney because the stalker believed that the state’s attorney was interfering in his relationship with model Cheryl Tiegs. The cyberstalker was obsessed with Tiegs and had been stalking her for years. She had never met him. The relationship existed in the cyberstalker’s mind only.
Cyberstalking is a real threat. Due to limited laws, the only real defense to use caution when revealing personal information on the Internet. The less, the better.