Friday, April 16, 2010

The Other Victims of Online Stalking

If you did a Google image search using “cyberstalking” as your keyword, you’d be inundated with overly dramatic pictures, some bordering on comical caricature, of grubby men in overcoats springing from computers and into the faces of female users or dark, menacing, hooded figures, always male, balefully staring at you from your monitor.

Hardly is it that dramatic and online stalking is often more subtle than that. Sometimes, all that’s needed to prove a case of cyberstalking is to post threatening content not on someone else’s blog but your own.

Plus, stalking in both cyberspace and in the real world is not solely the province of men. Quite often, females are found guilty of the crime, as well. In fact, a crime study from over a decade ago showed that while one million women in the US are estimated to be stalked at any time, the fact is also true that approximately 375,000 men are also stalked at any time of the day or night. No doubt, with the explosion of the internet’s growth since then, especially with the worldwide popularity of blogs, MySpace, Facebook, Craigslist and Youtube, not to mention countless online dating sites, technology has inevitably given online stalkers more resources and opportunities to pursue the innocent from the comfort of their den. It’s proven to be a Godsend to stalkers who otherwise would prove to be too lazy to stalk people in the real world.

Forewarned is forearmed.

So what do you do if you find that you’re being cyberstalked or trolled by someone? Detection is often the easiest part. If you have a blog, for instance, or a Facebook page, it’s very easy to set up an account with a stats-checking site such as Gostats or Site Meter. Even a free account will give you detailed information such as IP addresses, which can easily be traced through any of several reputable websites such as this one and this one, to name just two I’ve used.

My own stats checker, Gostats, gives me even with a free account a temporary archive of the IP addresses of the last 100 visitors, along with other detailed information such as horizontal resolutions of monitors, ISP’s, browsers and even the version used. If you can establish a timeline between the stalking and the timing of the visits, you can use any of these IP-tracking websites to trace the stalker even down to exact GPS coordinates (latitude and longitude, down to the exact minute and second). Establishing a timeline is crucial. Without it, you’ll be going crazy tracing the origins of what could be hundreds of IP address every day. To the uninitiated, IP addresses all look alike.

Establish a log by printing up the pages of the stats of the IP address used to stalk you. The more documentation you have, the better. Remember, criminal and civil courts love paper. Without it, you have nothing. This will, obviously, require some stalker-like vigilance on your part but the results will be worth the time and energy (Note: If you have Gostats, there's a separate IP address link that will show you all the IP addresses used to access your site, but not, alas, the times they were there).

Now, it’s true that IP addresses rotate so that people can employ several a day as they’re arbitrarily assigned to internet users. This is because the high usage of the internet puts these addresses at a premium. But in the case of someone who stalks you online through their employer’s server, this isn’t an issue since you’re talking about a smaller and finite number of users.

And some stalkers, while clever to skirt the edge of the law, really are stupid enough to stalk you from their place of work while putting their company in a legally compromised position. Using a company server, especially during working hours, more often than not practically guarantees they will be assigned the same IP address month after month, even year after year, making it very easy to spot and identify.

If you feel that you’re being stalked and harassed online by someone from their job, contact their company. If they have a web presence, they will have an IT security department, perhaps even a CIO (Chief Information Officer), Director of Information Services as well as a Director of Compliance. It goes without saying that a company of any appreciable size will also have a legal and Human Resources department that would love to get in on the action.

Remember, even if you’re the one getting cyberstalked, it’s a potentially slippery slope that could easily have the tables turned on you. The vagaries and unpredictability of the criminal justice system being what it is, your stalker could then file a counter suit on you just for monitoring their internet activities, even if they’re the ones placing their employers in legal jeopardy. Address your concerns to your stalker’s employer and simply hand over the IP address and let them handle the disciplinary action. Don’t try to be John McClane.

However, civil litigation is always an option, if you can afford an attorney.

What are your rights and options?

Michigan in 1993 was the first state in the union to pass anti-cyberstalking laws and now all 50 states have such statutes. Massachusetts has perhaps the strictest and broadest anti-cyberstalking law in the country. Ch. 265, section 43, subsection a of the M.G.L. defines cyberstalking thusly (emphasis mine):
Whoever (1) willfully and maliciously engages in a knowing pattern of conduct or series of acts over a period of time directed at a specific person which seriously alarms or annoys that person and would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and (2) makes a threat with the intent to place the person in imminent fear of death or bodily injury, shall be guilty of the crime of stalking and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than two and one-half years or both. Such conduct, acts or threats described in this paragraph shall include, but not be limited to, conduct, acts or threats conducted by mail or by use of a telephonic or telecommunication device including, but not limited to, electronic mail, internet communications and facsimile communications.

Annoyance pretty much sets some far-reaching boundaries and in the Bay State, you don’t even need to provide to the court crucial evidence of being in fear of your life or safety.

It’s true that in a good amount of cases, the stalker and victim know or knew each other either online or in the real world. In many cases, the stalker is a former lover, spouse or acquaintance. Some warning signs to look out for both in real time/real life relationships and online behavior:

• Refuses to accept "no" for an answer.
• Isolates you from your friends and/or family.
• Puts you down in front of your family or friends.
• Use of guilt to manipulate your feelings or to force you into courses of action you feel unhappy with.
• Extreme jealousy.
• Frequent loss of temper.
• Threats.
• Physical or verbal abuse.

There are several good organizations that will go to bat for you and act as a support network, in an advisory capacity or to pass along information to the pertinent authorities. One place I found was WHOA, founded by Jayne Hitchcock. Hitchcock became a cause célèbre in the 90's, especially among unpublished, unagented writers, because of her nightmarish experience with the Woodside Literary Agency. Woodside eventually went past cyberstalking and even issued death threats to Hitchcock. Her experience led her to found WHOA, which has a confidential, detailed online form that you can make out and send them.

In the case of someone stalking you from their home, a simple call to the local constabulary is usually good enough to set things right and such cases have been known to be resolved in an hour or less. However, what do you do when the local police department is actually part of the problem?

However well-meaning their intentions, police often employ a misguided sense of chivalry and automatically assume the female is the victim and the male is the perpetrator. This is especially true if the female “victim” is a homeowner. That way, the woman stalker is invested with not only ready-made victimhood status but also credibility since we tend to equate wealth and property ownership with morality while criminalizing insolvency.

Remember, the police are not infallible and when they enter into disputes they do so completely without context and often are fed lies, innuendoes and distortions from one party or another. But the all-pervasive reverse chauvinism enjoyed by female complainants is all too often abused by male LEO’s who are guided and motivated more by atavistic instinct than actual common sense and ratiocination.

When your cyberstalker tries to make counter charges and succeeds in getting the police department to harass you and whoever is living with you, there’s always your state’s Attorney General’s Office. I would avoid going to your county DA’s office as they often enjoy a too-cozy relationship with the local constabulary that’s often crucial to making their cases. The state Attorney General’s office will not necessarily feel the same warm, fuzzy, loyalty to your local police department than their county counterparts.

Many offices of Attorneys General are divided into several bureaus. For instance, Massachusetts’s AGO, run by Martha Coakley, has five, one of which being a civil rights bureau. If you feel that your local constabulary has violated your civil rights by stalking and harassing you on behalf of your stalker (admittedly, a rare occurrence), file a criminal complaint with your AGO and someone will walk you through the process either in a face-to-face meeting or by phone. In my experience they’ve proven to be very prompt in answering queries.

Finally, when you read about real world and cyberstalking cases, you rarely hear about the collateral damage done to those who are trapped in the middle of it. Often, in the wake of a failed relationship, one or both halves then find new love interests. These unwary people are often trapped into living through the same nightmarish scenario that’s often visited upon the primary target and that especially goes for police harassment. What happens to you will happen to your partner and such psychological and emotional collateral damage is simply unacceptable.

As a taxpayer, you do have resources and even with limited means and knowhow, you can fight for your rights not to be stalked and harassed just like anyone else. Just as the internet is an invaluable tool for stalkers to do their thing, that same internet can be your best weapon in fighting this injustice that plagues perhaps millions of people every day.


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