Cracking Down on E-Mail Harassment
By Brooke A. Masters
The e-mails started coming in April. Every day, James Gress's electronic mailbox at the Pentagon was clogged with 50 or more unwanted communications, including offers for pornography and subscriptions to online magazines such as "Workstation Tip of the Day" and "WebShoppers Hot Products Daily."
Gress, an official with the Defense Information Systems Agency, had no idea who was signing him up for all these services, but it had become all but impossible for him to identify the legitimate e-mails that he received for work.
So he complained to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service's new computer crimes unit. It tracked the subscriptions to a former underling, Trung Ngo, who apparently was still angry about a 1995 performance evaluation that rated him "Highly Successful" rather than "Outstanding," according to court documents.
As the online population has soared to an estimated 80 million users, the real-world crimes of harassment and stalking have moved into cyberspace, causing annoyance and outright fear for victims and headaches for law enforcement officials.
The mechanics of the Internet – mailing services and free e-mail accounts that make it possible to send vast numbers of anonymous messages with one keystroke – make it a fertile field for those seeking to frighten or intimidate, analysts said. A single user can send the same file to hundreds of people in far less time than it would take to telephone or write them.
At the same time, many police agencies are reluctant or ill equipped to deal with the problem because it is still so new and because it is often unclear when online misbehavior crosses the legal line from annoying to criminal. Many states are rushing to adapt their penal codes; in Maryland, a law making it a misdemeanor to send e-mail "with the intent to harass" went into effect Oct. 1.
About 30 percent of the 47,000 complaints reported so far this year to the Web Police, an international group that attempts to address online crime, involved harassing or threatening e-mail, said founder Peter Hampton. Last year, the group received fewer than 13,000 complaints.
Victims report everything from e-mail "bombs" that flood them with hundreds of messages to outright extortion and death threats, law enforcement agencies said. In a variation on the old "for a good time call Sally" prank, a 30-year-old Alexandria woman discovered that her name and phone number had been posted on matchmaking and sexual Web sites, leading other Internet users to send her suggestive or obscene messages.
Academics and others who study cyberspace say it is not clear whether e-mail has simply become another venue for crimes that would occur anyway or whether the electronic medium exacerbates the problem by making it easier to stalk and harass.
"The architecture of cyberspace might make it more common because you can do it all from your chair ... without going to the trouble of tracking [a victim] down, going to their house and leaving a note," said Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "It's easier to do and easier to do anonymously."
Last year, a Northern Virginia couple found themselves on the receiving end of several forms of harassment when they banned a Florida man from their online chat room on professional wrestling. First, the man, Emmett Gulley, of West Melbourne, kept trying to get back on to the chat room, posting insulting and threatening messages before they could throw him off. Then, he branched out.
"My husband has a Web page on the Net, and it has a guest book, and he started signing it, saying he was going to come after us and kill us," said the woman, 38, who asked not to be identified because authorities think Gulley never learned the Fredericksburg area couple's real names. "We tried calling the police, and they were clueless. It went on and on, and finally he started threatening my children."
Gulley also e-mailed them profanity-laced audio files containing more threats and telephoned and e-mailed threats to several other members of the chat room, according to court papers. He pleaded guilty two weeks ago to transmitting threats in interstate commerce and faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced in U.S. District Court in Orlando in January. His lawyer declined to comment.
The chat room couple got results, they said, because they decided to call the FBI, which took their problem seriously. Special Agent John Mesisca said his Washington-based squad will get involved when the threats are interstate and make explicit reference to doing bodily harm. The Washington Field Office, which covers the District and Northern Virginia, opens about six e-mail threat cases each month, he said.
Most victims have a harder time getting help from law enforcement, online advocacy groups say.
"Usually, state and local law enforcement will ... throw their hands up in the air unless you can show them off-line harassment," said Parry Aftab, executive director of Cyber Angels, the online offshoot of the Guardian Angels.
That's what happened to former Crofton resident Jayne Hitchcock.
In 1996 and 1997, Hitchcock was receiving several hundred e-mails at a time, and fake e-mails and postings to online groups were being sent out under her name.
When the writer complained to Anne Arundel County police, they "said there was no law that covered that. And the FBI said that unless there was a death threat against me there was nothing they could do," she said.
Eventually, the harassment escalated. Hitchcock, 39, who since has moved to New England, started receiving lewd phone calls after her name and phone number were posted to sexually oriented sites.
"If there had been a law, it never would have escalated, and I wouldn't have felt my life was in danger," she said. Hitchcock has filed a civil suit against the people she believes are behind the harassment.
Hitchcock was one of those urging Maryland legislators to adopt the new state law. In all, 17 states now have laws against online stalking or harassment, up from fewer than a half-dozen 18 months ago, said Nancy Savitt, a New Jersey-based lawyer who specializes in cyberspace issues. Neither Virginia nor the District has specific laws on e-mail harassment or stalking.
Some law enforcement agencies are also using existing laws against stalking and telephone harassment to go after those who abuse e-mail.
In the Pentagon e-mail case, Ngo, 32, pleaded guilty last month to "repeated telecommunications harassment." He could go to prison when he is sentenced in January in U.S. District Court in Alexandria because Congress recently beefed up the maximum penalties from six months to two years in prison.
His attorney, John Bevis, said Ngo is "a nice guy who had no idea of the laws that govern these situations."
Similarly, Gulley was prosecuted under a law that often is used for telephone threats, lawyers said. "A lot of electronic mail, they use the telephone wires, so we just adapt the law," Mesisca said.
In a California case, an e-mail harasser was charged under a federal civil rights law. This year, a federal jury convicted Richard J. Machado, a former student at the University of California at Irvine, in connection with a 1996 e-mail he sent to 59 mostly Asian students. The anonymous message, signed "Asian Hater," said, "I personally will ... find and kill everyone of you personally." Machado already had served a year in jail while awaiting trial and was sentenced to probation.
Legal analysts say they expect to see more criminal cases involving online harassment and stalking. However, criminalizing e-mail could raise civil liberties concerns. Overt threats to do harm clearly are not protected by the First Amendment, but some legal analysts worry that in the rush to make Internet users feel safe, lawmakers may trample on free speech by banning "lewd" communications or other e-mail that isn't clearly harmful.
"You can be crude, you can be rude, you can be nasty," said Stephen Brock, a Philadelphia lawyer who has handled several civil cases involving e-mail. "It's not a federal crime to be a jerk."
Staff writer Eric L. Wee contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company