A Twisted Case of Cyberharassment Reveals a 'Void in the Law'

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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, March 22, 2009

First came the phone calls: men, strangers, telling Barbara Goddard they'd seen her ad on Craigslist and were eager to come over for her promised "casual encounter."

Later that week, men started showing up at Goddard's door in Reston, ready for an evening of random sex. "I'm here from Craigslist," they'd say. "You've been set up," Goddard would tell them. By that time, she'd figured out what was happening: Someone was posting offers in her name on online message boards, with her home address.

Goddard called Fairfax police, who tried stepping up patrols, even posting an officer inside Goddard's apartment. Still, the men kept coming. Both Goddard, 65, and the police say they had a good idea who was behind this cruel attack, but despite months of effort, nothing has been done.

The men who came cannot be arrested: Technically, lawyers say, they've been invited. And the person behind the phony invitations remains uncharged -- because the laws protecting people from such attacks aren't tough enough; because the culprits make themselves into phantoms, changing e-mail addresses and identities by the minute; and because the Web sites used for such harassment resist handing over records.

"We all agree there's a void in the law," says Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who helped Goddard win attention from the police department's fraud unit. "No matter what this woman said or did, she couldn't get the situation resolved."

"There was really very little we could do for her," says John Keats, a Fairfax lawyer who represented Goddard after the person she believes was tormenting her swore out a complaint against Goddard -- bizarrely accusing the victim of having done exactly what had been done to her ("unwanted phone calls and visits by unknown men at her home looking for sex.")

Keats got that case thrown out easily: He summoned six police officers to court, and all told the judge that it was Goddard who was the victim, not the complainant.

But Keats, police and Hudgins concluded that there's little Virginia law can do to protect someone on the wrong end of Internet harassment. This is a relatively new area of law, and federal prosecutors didn't press their first case of cyberharassment until 2004. A few states have outlawed online harassment -- Maryland's legislature is considering a bill to expand current bans against e-mail harassment to include social media and other Web sites -- but many say it's difficult to protect victims of cyberstalkers while maintaining a strong defense of free speech.

In Illinois, Cook County sheriff Thomas Dart has accused Craigslist of being "the single-largest source of prostitution in the nation" because it's so easy to post ads and so difficult to trace their origins. But Craigslist Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster says the site has seen a huge drop in ads for "erotic services" since the fall, when it began requiring posters to submit a working phone number and blacklisting phone numbers from which inappropriate ads were placed.

Goddard's nightmare has been going on for 18 months. She even arrived at work one day -- she was in sales at the Eddie Bauer store in Reston Town Center -- to learn that the manager had received more than 100 phone calls for Goddard, all from men seeking an assignation.

Goddard has turned to medications for her nerves. She has hid inside her apartment. She posted a sign on her door: "If you're from Craigslist, you've been set up." The tormentor adapted: The next online invitation informed men that "My cell phone isn't working, but I will be home, so bang on the patio door. Ignore notice on front door."

Goddard has stacks of paper documenting what's been done to her: online postings, e-mails, correspondence, recordings of the men who call her answering machine. One man, who asked not to be named because he's married, confirmed that he responded to "a lewd message" and showed up at Goddard's house. The man has given Goddard all of the e-mails he had from the episode and says he hopes he can help "expose the culprit behind these cruel pranks." But the best police say they can do is to tell Goddard to ignore the culprit.

Some victims in such cases have been driven to move to escape their predator. No one can answer Goddard's question: "My life has been turned upside down. I don't sleep well. I check the door constantly. Why do I have to live like this?"


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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