PEOPLE harassing or threatening others by posting abusive comments on websites can be charged with cyber-stalking - an offence that carries a maximum jail term of 10 years.
That's the message Warrnambool police are sending to the public after concerns about offensive website forums were raised this week.
One particular website, which the press has chosen not to name, has drawn the attention of police after a spate of Warrnambool and south-west people used it to anonymously insult and attack residents. Most of the offenders and victims are believed to be young people, causing police to urge parents to monitor the internet usage of their children.
Detective Sergeant Lee Porter said anyone who felt harassed or threatened by comments posted anonymously on open website forums should contact police.
"People should contact police if they feel they're being subjected to crimes like harassment," Detective Sergeant Porter said.
He said that if it caused people to feel fear, apprehension and intimidation, it could come under the heading of cyber-stalking and people could be charged.
"People have got to be very careful what they put on (these sites)," Detective Sergeant Porter said.
He said that people who posted comments on web forums could also be held in contempt of court.
"Referring to witnesses in a matter that's before a court, or harassing or interfering with witnesses before a court . . . all these things will be vigorously pursued by us," he said.
Detective Sergeant Porter said that aside from cyber-stalking or harassment, people posting insulting comments about others on such websites were also leaving themselves open to civil defamation suits which could cost thousands of dollars in pay-outs.
He said anonymous posters on website forums could be tracked down in the same way police have caught people involved in uploading or downloading child pornography.
"People can be tracked down . . . and they will be dealt with," Detective Sergeant Porter said.
"Police are able to establish who posts these sort of things.
"There are various avenues open to police to track down people who do this.
"They will be charged and prosecuted. If they are committing offences they will be held accountable."
Legally, an act of cyber-stalking is defined as including when a person stalks another person by publishing on the internet or by an email or other electronic communication to any person a statement or other material with the intention of causing physical or mental harm to the victim or of arousing apprehension or fear in the victim for their own safety.