Stalking in general has received a great deal of attention in the past few years. The primary reason is that stalking has often been a prelude to violent acts, including sexual assault and homicide. For this reason, many states have passed a variety of antistalking laws. However, stalking has expanded into cyberspace. What is cyber stalking? It is using the Internet to harass another person; or, as the U.S. Department of Justice7 puts it:
- “Although there is no universally accepted definition of cyber stalking, the term is used in this report to refer to the use of the Internet, e-mail, or other electronic communications devices to stalk another person. Stalking generally involves harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly, such as following a person, appearing at a person’s home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person’s property. Most stalking laws require that the perpetrator make a credible threat of violence against the victim; others include threats against the victim’s immediate family; and still others require only that the alleged stalker’s course of conduct constitute an implied threat. While some conduct involving annoying or menacing behavior might fall short of illegal stalking, such behavior may be a prelude to stalking and violence and should be treated seriously.”
If someone uses the Internet to harass, threaten, or intimidate another person, then the perpetrator is guilty of cyber stalking. The most obvious example is sending threatening email. The guidelines on what is considered “threatening” can vary a great deal from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But a good rule of thumb is that if the email’s content would be considered threatening in normal speech, then it will probably be considered a threat if sent electronically. Other examples of cyber stalking are less clear. If you request that someone quit emailing you, yet they continue to do so, is that a crime? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer on that issue. The truth is that it may or may not be considered a crime, depending on such factors as the content of the emails, the frequency, the prior relationship between you and the sender, as well as your jurisdiction.
Real Cyber Stalking Cases
The following three cases, also from the Department of Justice website,7 illustrate cases of cyber stalking. Examining the facts in these cases might help you to get an idea of what legally constitutes cyber stalking.
- In the first successful prosecution under California’s new cyber stalking law, prosecutors in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office obtained a guilty plea from a 50-year-old former security guard who used the Internet to solicit the rape of a woman who rejected his romantic advances. The defendant terrorized his 28-year-old victim by impersonating her in various Internet chat rooms and online bulletin boards, where he posted, along with her telephone number and address, messages that she fantasized being raped. On at least six occasions, sometimes in the middle of the night, men knocked on the woman’s door saying they wanted to rape her. The former security guard pleaded guilty in April 1999 to one count of stalking and three counts of solicitation of sexual assault. He faces up to six years in prison.
- A local prosecutor’s office in Massachusetts charged a man who, using anonymous re-mailers, allegedly engaged in a systematic pattern of harassment of a co-worker, which culminated in an attempt to extort sexual favors from the victim under threat of disclosing past sexual activities to the victim’s new husband.
- An honors graduate from the University of San Diego terrorized five female university students over the Internet for more than a year. The victims received hundreds of violent and threatening emails, sometimes receiving four or five messages a day. The graduate student, who has entered a guilty plea and faces up to six years in prison, told police he committed the crimes because he thought the women were laughing at him and causing others to ridicule him. In fact, the victims had never met him.
Clearly, using the Internet to harass people is just as serious a crime as harassing them in person. This problem has even extended to workplace issues. For example, court cases have upheld that unwanted email pornography can be construed as sexual harassment. If an employee complains about unwanted email, the employer has a duty to at least attempt to ameliorate the situation. This attempt can be as simple as installing a very inexpensive spam blocker (software that tries to limit or eradicate unwanted email). However, if the employer takes no steps whatsoever to correct the problem, that reticence may be seen by a court as contributing to a hostile work environment. As previously stated, if the stalking act would constitute as harassment in person, then it would be considered harassment in cyberspace. Black’s Law Dictionary8 defines harassment as follows:
- “A course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such person and serves no legitimate purpose.”
- “Words, gestures, and actions that tend to annoy, alarm, and abuse (verbally) another person.”
Usually law enforcement officials will need some credible threat of harm in order to pursue harassment complaints. In simple terms, this situation means that if you are in an anonymous chat room and someone utters some obscenity, that act probably will not be considered harassment. However, if you receive specific threats via email, those threats would probably be considered harassment.
Laws about Internet Fraud
Over the past several years, various legislatures (in the United States and in other countries) have passed laws defining Internet fraud and stating the proscribed punishments. In many cases, existing laws against fraud and harassment are applicable to the Internet as well; however, some legislators have felt that cyber crime warranted its own distinct legislation.
Identity theft has been the subject of various state and federal laws. Most states now have laws against identity theft.9 This crime is also covered by federal law. In 1998, the federal government passed 18 U.S.C. 1028, also known as The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998. This law made identity theft a federal crime.10 Throughout the United States, federal law now covers identity theft, and in many states identity theft is also covered by state law.
Many states specifically prohibit cyber stalking; and in general, existing anti-stalking laws can be applied to the Internet. In 2001, in California a man was convicted of cyber stalking under existing antistalking statutes.11 Other countries also have existing antistalking laws that can be applied to cyber stalking as well. Canada has had a comprehensive antistalking law since 1993. Unfortunately, there are many similar cases. Just a few include the following:
- From 2010, there is the case of Joseph Medico (70 years old), who met a 16-year-old girl at his church. Mr. Medico followed the girl to her car and tried to talk her into going to dinner with him and then back to his home. When she rejected his advances, he began calling and texting her several times a day. His activities escalated until the girl reported the activities and Mr. Medico was arrested for stalking.
- In 2008 Shawn Michael Hutchinson, 20, posted threats and nude pictures of a former girlfriend. His threats included statements such as ‘“I told you that if I saw you with David that would be the end of you. That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.”
One nation that has decided to crack down hard on cyber criminals is Romania. Some experts have de-scribed Romanian cyber crime law as the strictest in the world.12 However, what is most interesting about Romanian law is how specific it is. The crafters of this legislation went to some effort to very specifically define all the terms used in the legislation. This specificity is very important in order to avoid defendants finding loopholes in laws. Unfortunately, the Romanian government only took such measures after media sources around the world identified their country as a “Citadel for Cyber Crime.” The country’s reactive approach to cyber crime is probably not the best solution.
The University of Dayton School of Law has an entire website devoted to cyber crime.13 The school has some rather extensive links on cyber crime, cyber stalking, and other Internet-based crimes. As we move forward in the twenty-first century, one can expect to see more law schools with courses dedicated to cyber crime.
An interesting phenomenon has begun in the past few years: the emergence of attorneys who specialize in cyber crime cases. The fact that there are lawyers who specialize in this area of law is a strong indicator that Internet crime is becoming a growing problem in modern society.