Privacy Watch: Stalking Over the Web Is a Growing Threat
First the cyberstalkers posted lurid sexual ads online--with her e-mail address, home phone number, and home address attached. "People started calling me all day and night, looking for sex," Hitchcock says. Someone "e-mail bombed" Hitchcock's account, sending hundreds of messages to render the account useless. The harassment stopped only when postal inspectors arrested the two fraudsters.
By many reports, cyberstalking--using the Internet and electronic communications to harass and threaten people--is quietly going strong in the United States. Hitchcock, now the president of the anti-cyberstalking group
Sometimes the smallest of slights will incite someone to cyberstalk, Hitchcock says. In 2002, WHOA found that 59 percent of victims had no significant previous contact with the stalker. A victim might have simply given a seller or buyer in an online auction a poor rating. Customers of online companies have launched harassment campaigns against business owners they don't even know. One remarkable stalking case started when a stranger in a chat room told the victim that he didn't like the screen name she was using. The harassment ballooned, and the stalker was finally arrested after he tracked down the victim's work address and showed up carrying rope and duct tape.
All 50 states have laws that criminalize stalking, and the federal government can prosecute stalkers whose communication crosses state lines. But despite tough laws, the ability to mask one's identity and location online makes life easier for cyberstalkers, according to Wayne Petherick, an Australian criminal profiler who specializes in stalking.
If someone harasses you online, ignore the person, Hitchcock recommends. "Defending yourself is the natural reaction when someone insults you, but it only feeds the stalker's rage," she says. Ask the administrators of online databases, such as Web phone books, to remove your personal information. Keep a log of everything the stalker has done and let someone you trust know what's going on. If you feel threatened by someone's online behavior, contact the police.