Lawyers Journal

Fighting back against cyberstalking

Have you ever been harassed on the Internet? If so, you're not alone.

The three most visible organizations that deal with cyberstalking and similar Internet issues receive about 30,000 complaints a year, according to Jayne Hitchcock, the president of one of them.

And this number is related to adult crimes, not those directed toward children, says Hitchcock, who founded WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse), at

http://www.haltabuse.org, in response to her being stalked for more than three years.

In 1996, Hitchcock, a professional writer, warned others publicly in a Usenet discussion group about a self-described literary agency that required fees for reading book manuscripts, a shady practice in the book publishing industry. (Some legitimate professionals charge to read and edit book manuscripts, but agents typically earn their fees as a percentage of royalties after books get published.)

The biggest problem with Woodside Literary Agency of New York City was that nobody's book ever got published despite paying the sometimes substantial fees required, a fact later confirmed in court. Two of the sham agency's proprietors were eventually convicted of mail fraud and perjury, and one did prison time.

After speaking out, Hitchcock was harassed by the agency, both online and offline. Her phone number and address were posted on the Web along with claims that she enjoyed sadomasochistic sex. Her e-mail in-box was "mailbombed" - hundreds of e-mails were sent to it at a time to prevent her from being able to efficiently use it. She was even threateningly tailed by a car while walking in her employer's parking lot.

"The scariest part was not knowing what they would do next," she says.

Confirming that dark clouds sometimes have silver linings, Hitchcock, along with helping other cyberstalking victims through WHOA, now devotes a good part of her time to speaking about the subject at conferences and seminars, training law enforcement agencies how to track down cybercriminals, consulting with state legislatures in the passage of cyberstalking statutes and writing about these and other realities, both

pleasant and unpleasant, related to living in the Internet Age.

If you ever find yourself being cyberstalked, "first send the person an e-mail politely asking him to stop communicating with you," says Hitchcock.

But don't engage him in extended dialog. If the person continues, that's when WHOA, an organization of 16 volunteers that doesn't charge for its services, can help.

Its primary method is to track down the Internet service provider (ISP) of the stalker, who typically cloaks this as well as other information about himself. Sometimes the ISP will warn the person or immediately cancel his account, and that's the end of it. Other times, though, the stalker will just create a different account and continue.

Options you now have include contacting the police, whether local, county or state, depending on their expertise with cybercrime. Sometimes hiring a cyber detective or a lawyer who specializes in cybercrime can facilitate this process. WHOA can refer you to such a specialist, if needed.

WHOA specializes in helping adults, but other organizations can help adults or children confronted with similar situations, including CyberAngels, at http://www.cyberangels.org, and SafetyEd, at http://www.safetyed.org.

Individuals aren't the only ones harassed this way. Companies or their management are as well. This is where high-powered cyber investigation agencies such as ICG Inc. of Princeton, N.J., at http://www.icginc.com, can help.

ICG, which has 50 employees, works primarily with businesses and government

agencies and charges fees "ranging from a few thousand dollars to many tens of thousands of dollars," says its chairman and CEO, Michael Allison.

Along with cyberstalking, other areas involving crime perpetuated through

the Internet that ICG gets involved with are extortion, blackmail, libel, product piracy and counterfeiting, fencing of stolen property, identity theft, and even bomb and death threats.

Another large company that's heavily involved with cyber investigation activities is Kroll Inc., at http://www.krollworldwide.com.

"The Internet can be a haven for bad guys," says Allison. But it's no different in this respect from the larger world, where good, and evil, coexist.

As you might expect, you can find plenty of additional information about Internet stalking and other crime on the Internet itself. Here are several worthwhile sources:

•  WiredSafety Cyberstalking and Harassment, http://wiredpatrol.org/cyberstalking_harassment, (a compilation of useful guidelines);

•  Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry, http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/cybercrime/cyberstalking.htm, (a U.S. Department of Justice report);

•  Cyber-Stalking: Obsessional Pursuit and the Digital Criminal, http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminology/cyberstalking, (a paper by an Australian academic);

•  An Exploration of Predatory Behaviour in Cyberspace: Towards a Typology of Cyberstalkers, http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue8_9/mcfarlane/index.html, (a study examining the behavior of cyberstalkers).

 

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [e-mail reidgold] or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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