Sunday, June 05, 2011

Cyberstalking on the Rise


When John Carlin began receiving photos on his cell phone last year of his live-in companion with other people, he didn’t realize he was being cyber-stalked.

Carlin says he turned to police after finding an online ad with his photo that encouraged men to come to his home for sex, but got no help stopping the harassment.

He said police didn’t want to look at the ad or other evidence he had collected, including alarming text and e-mail messages Carlin said were from a man he met in a bar.

“Crazy people don’t quit,” said Carlin, 38, of Dearborn. “I’m the one that’s going to go to jail trying to protect myself, especially when the cops do nothing.”

Metro Detroit authorities say they’re getting more complaints of online stalking, as social networking sites and cell phones make it easier to connect with people — and harass them.

The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office reports receiving eight times more cyber-stalking complaints than two years ago.

In Dearborn, police saw cyber-stalking complaints rise from 12 in 2008 to 21 in 2009. The department has nine cases this year; Lt. Mark Tobias said he expects an uptick with schools open again.

“Cyber crime or anything else, our protocol is we will respond,” Dearborn Lt. Neil Myres said.

Recent high-profile cases such as the suicide of a Rutgers University student, whose intimate encounter with another man was broadcast online, have led advocates to push back against abusive cyber behavior.

The issue is attracting attention in Lansing, Michigan. State Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, proposed legislation last week to crack down on cyber crimes against children and teens.

“We need to keep up with the new threats to our children,” she said. “It’s not acceptable to intimidate, harass or embarrass anyone using technology.”

Nationally, the number of people stalked is estimated at 3.4 million, according to a survey based on the 2006 Supplemental Victimization Survey of stalking behaviors, released in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Justice. One in four — or about 850,000 — were victims of cyber stalking.

In 75 percent of the surveyed cases, the stalker was a former lover, friend, neighbor or roommate whose actions caused victims to fear for their safety.

The relative anonymity of the Internet and the explosion of social networking sites have spurred a new breed of online criminal who uses personal information as a weapon, said Deputy Erin Diamond, an electronic forensics expert in the Internet Crimes Unit of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department.

Diamond said he gets at least two calls a week from police for help with cyber-stalking cases, up from one such call per month two years ago.

“You’re giving clues to where you’re hanging out, and that’s gold to stalkers,” Diamond said.

Diamond said local police departments “don’t exactly know how to handle the digital evidence” because it’s a newer crime and training isn’t widely available. And limited manpower forces investigators to choose between more tangible crimes, like homicide, over virtual ones.

Stalking is illegal in all 50 states, but laws vary. One expert thinks stalking is more likely to be prosecuted as a federal crime.

Nina Ginsberg, a criminal defense attorney in Virginia, said cyber stalking can become a felony when someone accesses another person’s stored electronic information and uses it to steal an identity, review bank records or make harassing phone calls.

“Getting into an e-mail account or Facebook account, snooping on them using the Internet or the telephone — that’s what cyber stalking is,” she said.

Jasmine O’Connor, a West Bloomfield computer repair technician, said more than two years after she divorced her second husband, she’s still being stalked and harassed.

When she learned her husband was seeing the mother of his child, she told him she wanted to end their six-week marriage and kicked him out of the house.

When he repeatedly called her at work, she almost lost her job. And when he could no longer reach her by phone, he sent her profane e-mails, she said.

The harassment has slowed, but “I just want it to go away,” she said.

Laura Gipson, 30, an administrative assistant at a Detroit hospital, said she couldn’t get a judge to take her seriously when a neighbor’s jealous girlfriend posted nasty Facebook updates about her and sent multiple friend requests daily for months.

Gipson blocked the girlfriend’s Facebook advances. Then, the woman confronted her at a party in late June. The two women fought in her neighbor’s apartment and Gipson was arrested. A court case is pending.

When Gipson sought a personal protection order after seeing the woman in July in her building, a judge refused her request, citing mutual harassment.

“To her, it was a ‘so what?’ kind of thing,” Gipson said. “People of an older generation don’t take things like that seriously.”

But the judge’s opinion in the Gipson case may be atypical.

“At some level, we shouldn’t be surprised that as tech develops that the stalker reflects society,” said Kevin Burke, vice president of the Williamsburg, Va.-based American Judges Association and a district judge in Minnesota. “It’s just one more tool for people whose aberrant behavior is to destroy somebody else.”

Additional Facts
If you're stalked - What to do

  • Document stalking behavior.

  • Print screen shots of unwanted electronic messages or pictures.

  • Save text and voice messages.

  • Contact an advocacy organization for help with stalking documentation and to develop a safety plan.

  • Report the crime to your local police. (do not leave the station until you have moved up the chain of command and gotten a copy of the written report)

Safety Net Project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence http://www.nnedv.org/projects/safetynet
Working to Halt Online Abuse http://www.haltabuse.org
National Center for Victims of Crime http://www.ncvc.org

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