Friday, June 12, 2009
Cyberstalkers Violate Victims with Cutting Edge
By Stephen T. Watson
It can be a GPS device implanted under a car’s dashboard, revealing where the victim is at any time.
Or a video camera hidden in a home and disguised as a baseball cap or a calculator.
Or spyware surreptitiously downloaded onto a computer that provides remote access to e-mail, the user’s schedule and every Web site she visits.
Stalkers today don’t have to lurk outside an office or trail a car to keep track of their target’s every move, because technical advances make it easier for them to harass their victims.
These high-tech tools tell stalkers where their victims are, what they are doing and whom they are talking to, all from a distance and hidden behind an electronic veil of secrecy.
“We’re noticing some folks we work with are starting to say, ‘How did he know that? How did he know I was here?’ ” said Robyn Wiktorski- Reynolds, advocate program coordinator at Crisis Services. “I know it’s happening, and I know it has instilled a lot of fear in people that it could happen [to them]. It’s just the new method of doing it.”
Law enforcement officials, victim advocates and tech experts say they have seen an increase in cases in which stalkers have used old and new technologies to track their victims.
Local police and prosecutors say they have seen a handful of such cases, and a study released this year by the U. S. Department of Justice found that electronic stalking is a serious problem.
“More and more, we’re seeing stalkers using this technology to facilitate the behavior they’ve always engaged in,” said Michelle M. Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime, in Washington, D. C.
Potential victims need to know that stalkers are using these high-tech devices and that they must be careful about what they share online, advocates say.
“It’s a very serious concern, and the problem with so-called stalking technology is that there’s very little that victims can do to identify or stop this covert tracking,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Some of this technology — such as hidden surveillance cameras or tiny audio recording devices — has been used by criminals and police alike for years. Today, however, the devices are smaller and cheaper, and the surveillance software is easier to use and more accessible.
Getting harder to track
A January report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department, found that 3.4 million people reported being stalked during a recent 12-month period.
During that time, covering part of 2005 and 2006, one in four victims said they were harassed by e-mail, text message or some other form of cyber-stalking, while one in 13 victims said they were stalked through some form of electronic monitoring.
It’s easy to obscure the origin of a phone call or e-mail, and people can send text messages anonymously through any of a number of Webbased services.
In one case, a young woman received several threatening calls on her cell phone from a man who knew her name, said Edward C. Hempling, director of training at the Erie Community College County Law Enforcement Training Academy.
The calls showed up as “Blocked ID,” Hempling said, and the man didn’t stop when the woman said she would call the police. The man called again, Hempling said, and he threatened an officer when he took the phone.
The investigation into the source of the calls, which is continuing, hasn’t been easy, he added. “It took two weeks for them to get the phone number,” Hempling said. “You increase the level of the technology, you’re increasing the time and the level of expertise required to properly investigate it.”
Global-positioning system technology has made it easier for stalkers to keep track of their victims’ location.
A stalker can implant a GPS device or another tracking device in a car and keep tabs on the position of the vehicle through an Internet connection.
Listening devices are getting easier to hide, cheaper and higher-quality. Newer technology allows users to tap into every file on a cell phone’s subscriber identity module, or SIM, card, the portable memory chip used by most cellular providers.
Also, a cell phone can be hidden in a car or home and programmed so that when stalkers call a phone, they can listen in on whatever conversation is taking place.
Video cameras, too, are getting smaller and easier to hide. They can be made to look like everyday objects and operate over a wireless connection, so the footage can be monitored online.
This month, for example, a West Seneca man was charged with hiding a spy camera in the bedroom of his girlfriend’s teenage daughter so that he could watch and record her dressing and undressing.
The Internet and cutting-edge computer software have opened new opportunities for stalkers interested in illicitly obtaining personal data.
Firms sell information
Spyware, often unintentionally downloaded onto the victim’s computer, can keep track of every Web site a computer user visits, e-mail traffic and instant messaging. Keystroke logging software, once installed, goes further and covertly transmits or keeps a record of everything the victim has typed onto the computer.
“There’s some way you can send e-mail that has a Trojan horse so that I can see where you’re going on your computer,” Amherst Assistant Police Chief Timothy M. Green said.
At a domestic-violence conference held in March at ECC, Jodi Rafkin recalled a woman who was stalked and killed in 1999 outside her office by a former classmate who found out where she worked through one of the companies that obtain and sell such information on demand.
The stalker, Liam Youens, had obsessed over Amy Boyer for years and devoted two Web sites to detailed descriptions of his hatred for her and his intentions to kill her, said Rafkin, a program attorney with the Stalking Resource Center.
Boyer’s family began a crusade to try to shut down such companies, which dig up phone records, as well.
In one pending Niagara County case, a man is accused of putting tracking devices in his estranged wife’s cell phone and in a laptop computer given to their children, said Lisa M. Baehre, an assistant district attorney and head of the office’s Domestic Violence Bureau.
Experts say law enforcement officials need to devote the time and resources for better training in detection, prevention and investigation of electronic stalking.
The conference at ECC’s North Campus was a local step in that direction, but more is needed because the technology is advancing so rapidly and the cases are so complex.
‘A daunting task’
“For the law enforcement side, it’s definitely a daunting task to think that every time you take one step forward, the bad guys take three steps forward,” said Supervisory Special Agent Jeffrey A. Tricoli, head of the cybercrime program with the Buffalo office of the FBI.
Potential victims need to be aware that stalkers can use the Internet and high-tech devices in committing their crimes and that they need to be cautious while using the Web.
“We talk to people about being careful what they put on the computer,” said Laura E. Grube, a coordinator with Child & Family Services Haven House, serving victims of domestic violence,“being careful about what they share on their Facebook page [and] knowing about their privacy settings.”