Produced by Alex Eule

Produced by Courtney McLeod

History of cyber-stalking
Computer crime resources

Safe computing tips

Computer crime cases
DOJ report on cyber-stalking

Authors' Web sites | Alex Eule | Courtney McLeod

Social connections are easier than ever online. But who’s checking you out on MySpace or logging in to your blog for the latest update? 

A new kind of stalking has emerged, and all it requires is an Internet connection.

“Anything online can be used against you, anything from e-mail to instant messaging groups to fantasy football and electronic greeting cards.  You name it, it can be used,” said Jayne Hitchcock, president of Working to Halt Online Abuse, a volunteer advocacy group that handles 50 “cyber-stalking” cases a week.  Hitchcock was a victim of cyber-stalking in 1996.

With physical contact sometimes non-existent, cyber-stalking is redefining privacy invasions and compelling state legislatures to take action.  The New York State Senate recently passed a bill that would criminalize such stalking by technological means. Many cyber-stalkers can be stopped just by changing online profiles and settings or creating a new e-mail account.  In many cases, common sense is enough to avoid problems.

Cyber-stalking is usually defined as using the Internet, e-mail and other electronic devices – including global positioning systems and text messaging – to stalk someone. Victims may know their stalker in person, know them only via the Internet or not know them at all.  As with the offline variety, online stalking consists of persistent, harassing contact that violates a person’s privacy.  There are thousands of potential cyber-stalking incidents a day, according to a spokeswoman for the U. S. Department of Justice. Currently, there is no federal law criminalizing cyber-stalking.

“The people who usually do this kind of thing are white collar, they’ve got good jobs,” Hitchcock said.  “But in their online life, they have a secret world where they’re doing these things.”

Forty-five states have some level of protection against cyber-stalking.  New York has had a cyber-stalking law in the works since 2003, though it has yet to pass the Assembly.  Janis Veeder, who drafted the bill for the sponsoring Senator, Caesar Trunzo, a Republican, said that there wasn’t a particular incident that sparked the legislation but a growing awareness that technology is being used in nefarious, invasive ways.

“This is becoming more and more a tool that people use,” she said.  The bill is an effort “to get something going before it becomes a major problem,” Veeder said, before a law is named after someone who died at the hands of a cyber-stalker.

Many cyber-stalking cases can be resolved by complaining to the Internet service provider.

“When people find out they can’t get away with it, the majority of them stop,” Hitchcock said.

In certain instances, however, current law and the minimal power of Internet service providers leave cyber-stalking victims vulnerable.

Hitchcock travels the country educating people about how to protect themselves online. 

“When people go online, they lose some common sense. They think no one’s going to hurt them,” she said.  “For people using scams or stalking, it’s a field day.”

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