Stalkers Go High Tech to Intimidate Victims
Saturday, April 14, 2007
The case had the makings of an eerie cyber-mystery: A young Alexandria woman told local police she suspected that her ex-boyfriend was tapping into her e-mail inbox from thousands of miles away, reading messages before she could and harassing the senders.
She was right to be suspicious. Her ex had hacked into her e-mail account, either guessing her password or using spyware -- software that can secretly read e-mails and survey cyber-traffic, law enforcement officials said. For months, apparently, he had followed her every online move, part of a pattern of abuse city police are still investigating.
Law enforcement officials and safety groups have focused on the Internet as an arena for such types of harassment as false impersonation and character assassination as more people voluntarily place their private lives on public display through Web sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com.
But a little-discussed and more threatening phenomenon is also happening to the unwitting online and in the high-tech world: cyber-stalking, the illegal monitoring of private information and communication of ex-lovers and spouses as a form of domestic violence. The spurned often use global positioning systems, invasive computer programs, cellphone monitoring chips and tiny cameras to follow the whereabouts, goings-on and personal communications of unsuspecting victims.
Cases from across the country have shown that stalkers with little more than cursory computer knowledge have been able to track the e-mail and Web activity of current or recently divorced spouses. In other cases, some cellphones, outfitted with GPS chips, are secretly attached to cars, and the signals are then followed online.
A Fairfax County woman named Carol, who requested that her last name be withheld because her case is ongoing, said her ex-husband accessed her e-mail and confronted her with personal information she had shared only with a close family member.
The cyber-stalking came after weeks of harassing e-mails and traditional stalking behavior, such as peeking in her window. She's convinced that he presented the computer information to prove that he could violate her sense of security whenever and wherever he wanted, even after he moved out of the region. At one point he sent an e-mail saying "I know what you're doing" and recounted personal actions she had told a family member only via e-mail.
"When the stalking comes from someplace, anyplace, it makes you wonder what he's really capable of . . . what he was going to do next," Carol said. "He could have been anywhere at anytime looking into my life and getting to me. He could have seen anything, like legal documents I was forwarding; or where I was going to be. That's what I never knew."
Just as technology has opened a new realm of abuse to those who seek to stalk someone from afar, cyber-stalking, in turn, has opened a new avenue of violation. Victims feel powerless to stop others from reading legal documents and intimate correspondence as well as tracking their every online move.
"What's so disturbing for many victims is that they can be harassed or followed from anywhere," said Susan Folwell, manager of the Domestic Violence Grant Program at the Women's Center, a counseling and resource center in Vienna. She said she has worked with victims who have had GPS devices placed in children's backpacks and listening devices put in tote bags.
"Victims begin thinking, 'I'm totally powerless' and start wondering what they have to give up to stay safe," she added.
The scope of the activity is somewhat unclear, police officials and victims' rights advocates said. In many cases, those who are being stalked through the airwaves aren't aware that they are being monitored. And evidence is difficult to gather, so police officials often don't feel they have enough to clinch prosecution.