Colleges Work to Combat Cyberstalking

Published August 22, 2006

| FoxNews.com

Jayne Hitchcock knows firsthand about cyberstalking.

In 1996, while living and working in Maryland, Hitchcock says she responded to an ad for a literary agency on a writer-oriented Usenet newsgroup but later found out the agency was being investigated for violations of industry practices.

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After she and several online friends posted warnings about the firm, Hitchcock said she received mass "e-mail bombs" to her and her husband's accounts, while online messages that included her name, address, and alleged interest in sado-masochistic sex were posted. She even received phone calls from someone threatening to kill her lawyer if he went ahead with legal action against the agency.

One day, she thought a suspicious vehicle followed her to work at the University of Maryland, then sped away after a security guard approached it.

Hitchcock, who has posted her story on the Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) Web site, said those experiences led her to become an advocate for stronger legislation against cyberstalkers who use the Internet to cause emotional — and sometimes physical — harm to their victims.

"Cyberstalking is a specific kind of harassment," said Hitchcock, now the president of the WHOA, an advocacy group which helps identify and support cyberstalking victims, among other things. "Cyberstalkers frequently follow their targets around the Net, frequenting in chat rooms, message boards, newsgroups or mailing lists in which the target participates."

She said it's a growing problem, "especially with the MySpace phenomena and IM/text messaging exploding as the way students communicate."

And college campuses are proving to be fertile ground for this type of stalking. Some experts believe the relative anonymity of Web access has lured some individuals into the practice of repeated online harassment — even if they may have shied away from the physical aspects of stalking someone — since cyberstalking affords perpetrators the luxury of annoying a victim from miles away.

"Cyberstalking [included within the bigger issue of high-tech stalking] is definitely on the rise on college campuses," said Connie Kirkland, sexual assault services coordinator at George Mason University. "Partially because of the use of Facebook and MySpace, which has an estimated use of millions on campus today."

She cited college students' desire to create new friends that leads many to put too much personal information online.

"Listing home numbers and addresses, plus placing pictures on oneself on these Web communities, for example, allows the potential stalker to know a great deal about a person — too much to keep a person safe online," Kirkland said.

What is Cyberstalking?

The Department of Justice defines cyberstalking as: "The use of Internet, e-mail or other electronic communications devices to stalk another person."

Stalking activities were described as "following a person, appearing at a person's home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving threatening message or objects or vandalizing a person's property."

George Mason University in Virginia defines stalking as "any behaviors or activities occurring on more than one occasion that collectively instill fear in the victim, and or threaten his or her safety, mental health or physical health."

Offending behaviors may include electronic mail and voice messages. Elevated stalking abuse can expose victims to a range of emotional trouble including fear, paranoia, anger, or sadness, Hitchcock said.

A random survey of more than 4,426 female students conducted by the University of Cincinnati in 1997 found that more than 13 percent said they had been stalked during a seven-month period; approximately 25 percent reported E-mail as the harassing behavior.

National figures show victims of cyberstalking tend to be females during the college ages 18-29.A survey of 765 students at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania found 45 percent of stalkers to be female and 56 percent to be male. National figures show most stalkers to be male by overwhelming margins (87 percent.) Men represented over 40 percent of stalking victims in the Penn-Rutgers study.

"If a girl says that she is being stalked, everyone believes her," said one 21-year-old male student, who told FOXNews.com he was cyberstalked. "If this happens to a guy, usually it seems to be ignored or paid less attention, which isn't usually fair."

There are several types of stalkers, including those who perceive victims as a true love destined for a future relationship to more aggressive perpetrators aiming to torment and even physically harm their target. Cyberstalkers may send repeated threats directly, or program their messaging system to send them at regular intervals. Another technique is to prompt other Internet users into harassing the victim by using his or her name or posting false information on a chat room or message board.

"The majority of our victims are 18-30, Caucasian women, although we have seen an increase in male victims over the past 6 years," said Hitchcock. "Half our cases involve victims who knew the person cyberstalking them but it wasn't necessarily an intimate…the other half of our cases are stranger on stranger.

Even though cyberstalking may be on the rise, some campus security experts say it's not as much of a problem as other crimes such as theft and rape.

"Usually we can handle a complaint out of intervention rather than as crime," said Steven Lynch, chief of campus security at George Mason University. "Sometimes we have to tell someone to knock it off and that is usually enough."

Lynch said his department has seen ex-lovers of both genders stalk one another and in some cases, the ex-boyfriend stalking the current love of a former girlfriend.

Joshua Beeman of with University of Pennsylvania's Information Security Department could only recall a handful of cyberstalking cases handled by his office over the past few years. But he said if needed, his office can use information in an e-mail to track the original location of anonymous or forged messages.

"A typical scenario is when a student is receiving unsolicited e-mails from an outside party," said Beeman. "Anytime a student is concerned for their physical safety we direct them to contact campus security."

Beeman suggests college students perform "ego-googling," or doing a Web search based on their name, to find out where one's name is being used. He also recommended students use gender-neutral usernames, as well as carefully consider everything they write and post on the Internet.

Response to Cyberstalking

Today, at least 45 states have either specific cyberstalking laws or language within existing stalking laws that address Internet, e-mail and electronic communication.There are also federal laws barring interstate stalking, transmissions of electronic threats across state lines, etc.

Hitchcock was instrumental in getting the Maryland state legislature to pass an online harassment bill implementing fines up to $500 fine and up to a year in prison. She was on hand when the Maryland governor signed it in 1998.

As for helping the victims, there are several advocacy groups like WHOA and the Cyber Angels that aid citizens in determining whether they have been cyberstalked; help arrange counseling; and/or work to encourage Internet Service Providers to disclose information to help track cyberstalkers.

Many colleges have instituted stalking policies and penalties for offenders.

"Most colleges are responding the way they should, by taking these kinds of cases seriously and others are waking up," said Hitchcock. "[The response] depends on how well educated campus security or local police are … if they don't have the tools to handle it, it will be tougher."

George Mason University Sexual Assault Services distributes literature to incoming freshman advising them on how to stay "cybersafe" and how to respond if they are victims of online harassment.

Among the tips:

• Let family and friends know about the situation

• Terminate all contact with the stalker

• Write 'no contact statement' making clear to stalker that behavior should cease

• Keep a stalking log listing the dates and times the stalker exhibited the behavior

• Utilize separate addresses for visiting chat rooms or blogs

• Limit e-mail address to friends and family

• Change your passwords frequently

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