Since the 1990s, the United States has recognized stalking as a criminal offense. Although its legal definition varies by each state, stalking includes unwanted behaviors that range from harassment to threats of violence and death. Stalking has now moved into cyberspace where the same actions off-line and new tools online allow for the perpetuation of cyberstalking. The Internet allows online stalkers to create the same victim experiences and reactions, whether online or off-line, but with greater challenges for law enforcement to stop and protect cyberstalking victims.
Use of electronic communications such as cell phones, e-mail, instant messenger, social networking sites, and Internet-based tools to threaten, bully, intimidate, or harass someone is termed cyberstalking. Frequently cyberharassment is an element within cyberstalking, though it is not a requirement. Online threats may include repeated e-mails, spam, false information posting, assuming the victim’s identity, and threats of violence or death. Both forms of stalking tend to involve victims and offenders that know each other, with a female victim and a male offender, though online anonymity allows for any person to be a potential offender or victim.
Legislation about cyberstalking occurs at the state and federal levels, with all states having antistalking laws that are incorporated within existing stalking laws or with the addition of electronic stalking laws. The U.S. Federal Interstate Stalking Law was amended in 2000 to include threats made through e-mail or the Internet. Interstate threats to injure or kidnap someone through electronic communications were also criminalized. Other laws and acts have included the criminalization of electronic communications that are used to harass, abuse, or threaten someone.
Cyberstalkers have a wide array of methods available for use in stalking and gaining information about their targeted victims. With most instant messaging programs anyone can contact anyone else behind the anonymity of a screen name, with nothing preventing a cyberstalker from creating multiple user names and accounts as victims block or ignore them. Free Web mail services give free mail accounts to anyone, without verification of their true identity. Like instant messaging programs, there is no limit on the number of accounts a cyberstalker may utilize. Anonymous remailer Web sites forward e-mail to recipients without revealing anything about the sender’s identity, so online stalkers can “cover their tracks.” Landlines (nonmobile phone service) can be tapped to gather victim information. Fax headers can also be used for information gathering, as well as global positioning systems (GPS) to track and trace the victim’s whereabouts through the use of a computer.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace also can be used easily by cyberstalkers to track and stalk users. Facebook.com, a popular online networking site, grew from 1 million active users in the early 2000s to well over 1 billion users by 2013. There is no verification that the user really is the person he or she claims to be, which is an ideal tool for online stalkers. Facebook users may integrate applications that allow them to broadcast information about themselves and view similar information about their friends, including relationship status, contact information, current address, pictures, friends, and current location.
These options may be helpful in networking, but they are also the same tools cyberstalkers use. Like Facebook, MySpace.com features tools and applications that allow users to “friend” others, contact users, leave comments, broadcast current activities, post photos, and view any contact information. Both sites have a privacy setting that can help ensure limited pubic assess to user information, but only if users change the defaults. With continual increase in the use of social networking sites, these formats provide a potential wealth of information about people that can be used to cyberstalk. This online information, as well as access to online public records, can provide a cyberstalker with a wealth of information to harass and threaten his or her victims on a daily, hourly, or even minute-to-minute basis.
Many cyberstalking victims do not realize they are being stalked until events become more serious or threatening. Victims may not make the “connections” of how their cyberstalker is gaining information about them until their e-mail and other online accounts have been compromised and controlled by the offender. Some victims are less computer savvy than their cyberstalkers, which renders them more vulnerable to their attackers, with fewer recourse options to protect themselves. Technologically literate cyberstalkers have an upper hand to control each step of the stalking/harassing relationship. The victim and law enforcement officials face challenges in protecting the victim and stopping the stalking behaviors.
Unique to cyberstalking victims is the burden and sometimes requirement to gather their own evidence to support their own victimization. Victims tend to copy all e-mails, transcripts, accounts, and any other relevant events to show law enforcement they are being cyberstalked. Even armed with this information, law enforcement agencies are limited in their resources, time, and abilities to locate an anonymous cyberstalker that can be anywhere around the world. An online organization, Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), provides assistance to people who are experiencing cyberharassment and cyberstalking. This site has advocates that work with victims to contact law enforcement and Internet service providers in order to protect themselves. This site has worked with over 3,700 cyberstalking cases around the world, gathering statistical information and providing necessary resources to victims and law enforcement agencies alike.
Online and off-line stalking cases are difficult for law enforcement to stop and protect. Cyberstalking cases pose the greatest challenges due to the anonymity provided by the Internet. Determining the identity of the cyberstalker is necessary for protective orders and criminal charges to be filed, though with the boundless nature of the Internet, this can be an impossible task.
- Bocij, Paul. Cyberstalking: Harassment in the Internet Age and How to Protect Your Family. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
- Geach, Neal and Nicola Haralambous. “Regulating Harassment: Is the Law Fit for the Social Networking Age?” Journal of Criminal Law, v.73 (2009).
- Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ). “Report to Congress on Stalking and Domestic Violence.” Washington, DC: USDOJ, 2001.
- Parsons-Pollard, Nicolle, and Laura Moriarty. “Cyberstalking: Utilizing What We Do Know.” Victims and Offenders, v.4 (2009).
- Working to Halt Abuse Online. “Online Harasssment/CyberStalking Statistics.” http:// www.haltabuse.org/resources/stats/index.shtml (Accessed May 2013).
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