Friday, September 28, 2012

Internet Becoming a Pathway to Violations

by David Linton

Officials say people with restraining orders against them are using social networking to contact victims and victim's friends & families.

(Massachusetts, USA) A man embroiled in a domestic dispute with his estranged wife contacted her friends in an effort to see their kids, which was prohibited by a restraining order.

"She should let him see their father. She has issues with him. It shouldn't get in the way of the kids. Pass on the love," he allegedly said.

Prosecutors argued that the defendant, 38-year-old George Manchester of Fall River, violated a restraining order by trying to contact his estranged wife through her friends.

Only Manchester, who denies the allegations, did not speak to the friends directly or send them a letter.

Prosecutors say Manchester, who police say has a history of domestic violence and violating restraining orders, reached out through cyberspace on the social networking website Facebook. "Your honor, it looks like he's coming up with more creative ways to violate the restraining order without getting caught," Assistant District Attorney Kelly Costa argued last month during a bail hearing for Manchester in Attleboro District Court.

The use of social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace by domestic abuse defendants prohibited from contacting their victims is becoming more common, authorities say, as the use of the websites has proliferated in society.

North Attleboro police Detective Michael Elliott says he's investigated numerous cases in which restraining orders were violated by people using social networking websites, as well as e-mail and cellphone texting.

"Just because it's not in person doesn't mean it's not a violation," said Elliott, who has investigated numerous cybercrimes. "Violations using the phone and violations over the Internet are very similar."

Officials at New Hope, a non-profit women's shelter and domestic abuse support agency, say technology is a good way to keep in touch with family and friends, but it also has been used to torment domestic abuse victims.

"Many of New Hope's clients have in some form or at some point had technology used against them by their abuser, and perpetrators of violence are becoming increasingly 'tech-savvy' in using various devices to abuse or locate their victims," New Hope spokeswoman Laura Hennessey Martens said. "It is important for survivors to know that while living in an abusive home or even after leaving their abuser, social media, cell phones and other technologies can continue to be used against them and may jeopardize their safety," Martens said.

In Bristol County, there have been cases in all four district courts in which defendants have violated restraining orders through text messaging or social networking sites.

In one New Bedford case, a man is alleged to have taken his ex-girlfriend's cell phone and texted her friends, threatening to kill her, said Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter.

"We've had defendants threaten to kill victims and burn their houses down. It seems that in the past few years it is an ever more popular way for defendants to violate restraining orders," Miliote said.

There are no local statistics to show the number of incidents, Miliote said, but prosecutors in the domestic violence unit have been successfully prosecuting more and more defendants for violating restraining orders through cyberspace.

"It's not unusual," Miliote said.

A U.S. Justice Department survey released last year noted that 1 in 4 stalking victims reported some form of cyberstalking by e-mail or instant messaging - and that was based on information gathered in 2006.

With the increased popularity of social networking and smartphones within the past few years, authorities say instances of cyberstalking or prohibited contact due to a restraining order is almost certainly higher.

Social networking, whether by e-mail or websites, is becoming more popular among all age groups, with 86 percent of those 18 to 26 using social networking sites, up from 16 percent in 2005, according to a survey released last month by the Pew Research Center.

Users 30 to 49 shot up from 12 percent in 2005 to 61 percent in May 2010.

The fastest growth occurred in the 50 to 64 age group, with the figures more than doubling in one year. Last year, 22 percent said they used social networking sites, jumping to 47 percent in May 2010, according to the Pew survey.

Martens says domestic violence victims can protect themselves.

While each domestic violence survivor's situation is unique and may require different strategies to "stay ahead" of his or her abuser, some basic technology safety tips include:

If using a computer that your abuser might have access to, be sure to clear your browser. However, computer use can still be monitored and Internet use is impossible to completely clear.

It is recommended that survivors instead use a computer that the abuser does not have access to.

Keep personal or identifying information offline. Online photos and postings can be used to track victims' whereabouts. This includes photos and postings by family and friends of a survivor.

Keep in mind that, even when selecting privacy settings at the highest level of privacy, there is still no guarantee that the information will be or will remain private.

Keep in mind that cell phones, car safety tracking systems and other technologies have GPS tracking devices that can be used by abusers to locate their victims.

More information is available on New Hope's website http://www.new-hope.org

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