Sunday, August 05, 2012

Technology Used by Criminals to Track or Find Victims

by Tom Smith

Instead of lurking in bushes or hiding in the shadows outside of homes, stalkers have gone high-tech, using cell phones, computers and the Internet to hunt and track their victims.

"I know of some cases where people were stalked by e-mail or through Facebook or another social networking site," said Bryan Oakley, an agent with the FBI's Huntsville office who specializes in Internet crime.

He said technology is so advanced that tracking software can be added to telephones, cell phones or laptop computers.

"(Cyberstalking) is something that five years ago would be difficult to do, but there are more people using technology every day," Oakley said. "A lot of people use Twitter or Facebook to file what they are doing and where they are doing it, every minute of the day.

"People put out information about where they're traveling, where they work, pictures of their car, their friends, or themselves. They put out all the information someone stalking another person would need to know."

According to statistics released by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), in Washington D.C., there are 3.4 million stalking victims each year. Of those, one in four victims said they have experienced a form of cyberstalking.

Alexis Moore said most people are naive about the problem.

"They have the mindset of 'it's not going to happen to me.' It does; it happened to me," said Moore, a California resident who was stalked by a former intimate friend.

"He was opening and closing my bank accounts," she said. "He never went as far as stealing from me, but I was not able to cash a check because he was making it where I was overdrawn all the time," she said. "He was going online, paying my bills on my accounts with money I didn't have, trying to ruin my credit."

She said the actions were not classified as crimes, but it was a nuisance.

"I never thought something like this would happen to me," Moore said.

To put a stop to the problem, Moore "shut down everything and lived off cash for a while."

"It was a sinister game to him, just trying to drive me crazy," she said.

Phil Bridgemon, instructor and chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at the University of North Alabama, said cyberstalking is the new wave of crime.

"People need to take this very seriously," he said. "Knowing this should cause everyone who uses a computer to manage their online identity better and more closely. There are no secrets; there is no modesty."

He said would-be stalkers search social networking sites, profiling people in hopes of finding a victim.

Katherine Hull, vice president of communications for RAINN, said people need to be aware of what they are putting online.

"People get online, and they think their activity is anonymous, but it isn't," she said. "They post things, get in a chat room and say something that leaves themselves wide open to becoming a victim of cyberstalking.

"Technology is a wonderful thing, but it opens us up to be vulnerable."

Bridgemon agrees.

"Because of the information that we put out there on the Internet, stalkers can follow someone around and never leave their home," he said.

Parry Aftab, a spokeswoman for Wired Safety, an online safety group, said people need to be taught digital hygiene.

"They have to be taught how to use the Internet and social networking systems in a safe manner," she said. "Unfortunately, that's something that people never think of before it's too late.

"Not only do they not see this coming, but they don't know they need to see it coming," Aftab said.

"We have got to do a better job in educating the public about this growing problem."

Michelle Collins, an official with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said her agency has had a cyber tip line for 12 years in an effort to learn more about cyber crimes.

"Last year, we received 120,000 calls," Collins said. "Many of those were about cyberstalking."

She said cyberstalking often leads to physical assaults.

Collins said there was an incident in Wyoming where an ex-boyfriend put a posting online claiming his ex-girlfriend had a rape fantasy and needed people who would fulfill that fantasy.

"They actually showed up at her house and raped her," Collins said.

Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said there is no one definition of a cyberstalker.

"They come in all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds," he said. "They patrol Web sites looking for an opportunity to take advantage of people."

He said in Alabama cyberstalking falls under the stalking law, which is a felony.

Sheffield Police Chief Greg Ray said a few years ago his department worked on cybercrimes trying to catch people who were using the Internet to prey on underage girls. He said in setting up sting operations, three people, two from other states, were arrested.

"What they were doing was basically stalking these children or the profiles of these children," Ray said.

Hull said RAINN tries to stress the importance of being careful with information put on the Internet.

"We are living in an age where people are living a vast part of their lives online. That's why we encourage folks to think twice about what kind of information they put on the Internet," Hull said.

"Criminals take advantage of any tools they can, and (the Internet) is just another new tool at their disposal," Oakley said.

Moore said there have already been too many victims of cyberstalking.

"It's an invisible crime, one where the victim is usually not beat up or one where we can see the criminal," Moore said. "The answer is education, starting at the younger ages, teaching school-age children how to use technology the right way - the safe way."

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