Forensic Psych

Cyberstalking: Lurking in Anonymity

This is a paper I just wrote on cyberstalking. Hope you find it informative and interesting. As always, please do not steal as this is my work! Thank you!

Abstract

Cyberstalking is a fairly new concept, but it is one that law enforcement has attempted to take seriously (Pittaro, 2011; Conti, 2007; Ellison & Akdeniz, 1998). The research that is available, though limited, suggests that cyberstalking is fairly common, especially by educated men on younger women (Pittaro, 2011;

Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). Research also suggests that the victims of cyberstalking are just as likely to experience anxiety, fear, and helplessness as victims of offline stalking are. One thing that is known is that cyberstalkers often lurk in anonymity and it makes them much more difficult to deter or apprehend because they can hide behind the secrecy allowed them over the World Wide Web (Lipton, 2011; Pittaro, 2011). This illusiveness may make cyberstalkers even more threatening, intimidating, and frightening. However, despite the negative impact cyberstalking seems to have on victims, many victims will not report the incidences to law enforcement because they are not sure if it is a crime or if law enforcement will be able to help them (Pittaro, 2011; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). This is a developing subject in research and will likely continue to be researched in the future (Pittaro, 2011). More research is needed to better understand the cyberstalking behavior in order to better inform law enforcement, victims, and the public in general.

Keywords: cyber stalking, stalking, computer, internet, deviance, crime
Cyberstalking: Lurking in Anonymity

In the spring of 2009, Melissa began receiving unwanted emails from a woman she calls ‘Sarah’ (Ing, 2010). Sarah began emailing her about a man that they both had dated in the past and asked Melissa to have him contact her. Melissa simply ignored the email and deleted it. However, Sarah began to become a nuisance. She sent the same email to Melissa again and when Melissa again ignored it, Sarah sent her 5 emails in one hour just a few days later. She contacted her ex-boyfriend and told him to please contact Sarah because she was beginning to be a nuisance. Sarah never heard from the man and neither did Melissa. Sarah continued to email and Melissa continued to block her and delete the emails. This did not deter Sarah; she continued to make new screen names and email Melissa. The emails “…would alternate between a whine that I wasn’t helping her, a whine about [the ex], followed by normal emails of how she spent her day with her children” (Ing, 2010, para. 16). Melissa asked Sarah to never contact her again, but she again did not stop. Melissa was away from her email account for about a month and when she logged

 in there were 1,100 emails from Sarah. Melissa was fearful at this point and took her case to law enforceent officials, but they were unable to locate her no matter how many email addresses and social networking profiles they were provided. Eventually, Sarah stopped emailing once Melissa never contacted her again, but it changed the way Melissa lived. She says that she was afraid to get on the internet for quite some time and that it was an experience that she will never forget. Melissa’s story has many elements of a typical cyberstalking case while other parts are quite atypical, all of which will be discussed in this paper.

Stalking is very often a frightening experience, regardless of whether or not one is being physically pursued or pursued via the internet, and as it is a frightening experience, it should not be taken lightly (Pittaro, 2011). Both online and offline stalking can produce fear in the victims. While there is much research available on offline stalking, cyberstalking research is still in its infancy. There are many questions that research has yet to answer, and in many cases research leaves one with even more questions. Cyberstalking definitions, typologies, prevalence, and etiology are all subjects of debate within the research community. This paper seeks to summarize cyberstalking to the extent to which research currently allows, as well as discuss how it affects its victims.

What is Cyberstalking?

Definition

The general definition of cyberstalking involves a person using “…the Internet, e-mail, or other electronic communication device[s] to create a criminal level of intimidation, harassment, and fear in one or more victims” (Pittaro, 2011, pp. 278). However, there is a discrepancy among researchers in defining the term. Other research has defined cyberstalking as “…an extension of stalking that utilizes computers and other electronic devices or as a completely separate action that has some of the elements of stalking but utilizes a different mode of delivery” (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009, pp. 435). There are similar elements between the two of these, such as the use of computers, the internet, and other electronic devices to stalk someone. However, the second definition suggests that cyberstalking may simply be a tool utilized by physical stalkers in the pursuit of their victims. This is certainly a suggestion that comes up in the research.

Prevalence

According to the Internet World Stats website (2011), North America had 273,067,546 internet users and 174,586,680 Facebook users as of December 31, 2011. About 83% of adults in the United States own cell phones, 73% send and receive text messages, and 31% reported that they prefer text messages to phone calls (Smith, 2011). With so many people on the internet and using mobile devices, there is an increased chance of cyberstalking. However, cyberstalking research is in its infancy, and there are few studies that have similar findings in regards to the prevalence of cyberstalking the United States (Pittaro, 2011). There has not been enough research done in order to reliably determine or establish how prevalent cyberstalking is within American society. This being the case, one must keep in mind that the research is growing, but, as Pittaro (2011) mentions, it may be somewhat anecdotal at this point because there is not much available yet. There are two kinds of research on the prevalence of cyberstalking, namely, studies that look at pure cyberstalking and those that look at cyberstalking as an extension of physical, offline stalking.

The first type appears to have very little research in comparison to the second type. One study looked at cyberstalking cases investigated by the New York City Police Department’s Computer Investigation and Technology Unit (CITU) between 1996 and 2000 and found that 42.8% of the cases investigated by the CITU involved “aggravated harassment by means of a computer or the internet” (D’Ovidio & Doyle, 2003, pp. 12). While this is an interesting finding one must note that this only involves 201 cases investigated in New York City, which may not be generalizable to the country or the cyberstalking population as a whole. A study by Reyns, Henson, and Fisher (2011) asked 974 university students to fill out a self-report survey about stalking and found that 41% of the students had experienced some type of cyberstalking in their lives, especially that of unwanted contact and harassment. It is interesting to note that both of these studies are around 40%. This may hold significance, but there is simply not enough research on pure cyberstalking to determine any prevalence rates at this point in time. However, by looking at Melissa’s case, one can see that she was contacted via email, which seems to be the main way that cyberstalkers pursue their victims (Pittaro, 2011; Ing, 2010). In addition to this, her experience involved unwanted contact and harassment via over 1,100 emails just as the studies suggest is common occurrence in cyberstalking cases.

There is a bit more data available on cyberstalking as an extension of offline stalking. One study performed by the Department of Justice informs the reader that about 1 in 4 (26.1%) of stalking victims reported that some type of cyberstalking was used, especially email and instant messengers (Baum, Catalano, Rand, & Rose, 2009). Another study found that 13.1% of undergraduate females had been stalked, and of that group 24.7% had been emailed by their stalker (Sheridan & Grant, 2007). This research suggests that cyberstalking is not any different than offline stalking, but rather that cyberstalking is either merely an extension of offline stalking or that cyberstalking will lead to offline stalking. Sheridan and Grant (2007) go on to suggest that the cyberstalker may begin stalking on the internet but may turn to offline stalking when he can no longer get the same amount of thrill from online harassment. Instead, he may move to offline stalking in order to increase the thrill that he is seeking. In another study, only 2 of 145 cases that were studied involved the stalker using email, suggesting a low rate of cyberstalking (Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). Overall, there is not enough research to accurately state what the prevalence of cyberstalking is in offline stalking cases, but also cases where the stalking is purely on the internet or over other electronic communication devices. Even in the available research many of the findings, if not most, come to different conclusions. This is currently problematic, but more research will likely replicate some of these findings and therefore help to better understand the prevalence of cyberstalking.

The Cyberstalking Offender

Just as there is limited data on prevalence, there is limited data on the typologies and etiologies of cyberstalkers because it is not known how prevalent cyberstalking is in general. There is not much known about what type of people pure cyberstalkers are likely to be or what may lead them to choose to stalk their victims over the internet rather than in real life. In fact, some researchers suggest that there may not be a fundamental difference between the offline stalker and the cyberstalker (Sheridan & Grant, 2007).

Typology

Research suggests that cyberstalkers are often males who are employed or in college (Pittaro, 2011; Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). They are likely to have an addiction to the internet, no prior criminal history and were likely to have multiple, interstate victims at one time. They are likely to remain anonymous, be intelligent, and technologically savvy. This, however, is based on one study based on 20 cases and may not generalize to all cyberstalkers. In the rare case when the cyberstalker is a woman, she is likely to stalk an ex-partner or another female in order to develop a relationship with her (Pittaro, 2011). This seems to be the case with Sarah, Melissa’s cyberstalker (Ing, 2010). Sarah seemed to want to get in touch with her ex-boyfriend through Melissa at first, and then it became apparent that she wanted to develop a relationship with Melissa. Female cyberstalkers may often stalk for these reasons, but there seems to be a variety of general motivations for cyberstalkers to stalk their victims, regardless of gender.

Four types of cyber stalkers have been suggested based on another study (McFarlane & Bocij, 2003). These types are labeled the vindictive cyberstalker, the composed cyberstalker, the intimate cyberstalker, and collective cyberstalkers. The vindictive type is much more likely to threaten their victims than any of the other groups and often stalked them offline as well as online. The stalking in these cases typically began with a trivial discussion or argument and ended up with the offender getting upset and setting out on a mission to harm the victim. This type was the most likely to use spam, viruses, and identity theft against the victim. The composed cyberstalker does not want to develop a relationship with the victim, but rather wants only to harass, threaten, and annoy the victim. The intimate cyberstalker desires to have a relationship with the victim. This type can be divided into two subcategories: the ex-intimate and the infatuate. The ex-intimate may desire to repair the past relationship, but he may also threaten the victim as well. The harassment begins on the internet in this type, not offline. The infatuate begins by sending the victim an intimate message and desires to develop a relationship with the victim. When the infatuate is rejected, he will then begin to threaten the victim. Lastly, the collective cyberstalkers work together to send the victim many emails, and to spam, threaten, and steal the victim’s identity. This group is the most computer literate out of all the four types of cyberstalkers (McFarlane & Bocij, 2003). The McFarlane and Bocij (2003) study had 24 participants from various countries, which could be problematic in that it may not generalize to one country and or to cyberstalkers in general because the sample size was small and was spread out across the world rather than from one country. In this study it was suggested that there were cyberstalkers who worked together to harass a victim and steal her identity, but in another study pure cyberstalkers were found to work alone (Sheridan & Grant, 2007). This is an interesting finding that opposes the McFarlane and Bocij study. One must recall that research is limited and there must not be too much weight placed on one study over another. There are many possible cyberstalker typologies, but there is not enough research to firmly establish one over the other at this point.

Melissa Ing was cyberstalked by a female named Sarah, which is not the typical cyberstalker offender (Pittaro, 2011; Ing, 2010). Out of the four types described by McFarlane and Bocij (2003), Sarah may be considered a composed cyberstalker or an intimate cyberstalker because it seemed as though she wanted to either annoy Melissa or befriend her. Sarah’s motives are not very clear. She does not seem to clearly fit in just one of these types; she may have wanted to develop a relationship with Melissa or she may have wanted to simply harass her because Melissa had also dated her ex-boyfriend. Many online stalkers may not fit clearly into one of these types, but there is not enough data to determine a solid typology for cyberstalkers (Pittaro, 2011).

Potential Causes of Cyberstalking

There are two theories that have been used to describe the etiology of the cyberstalker, or what causes them to stalk their online victims (Pittaro, 2011). One theory is the rationalization theory which suggests that the cyberstalker has purposefully made the choice to stalk his victim after he has weighed the benefits and risks involved. Cyberstalkers are likely to use the anonymity of the internet and in doing so they are less likely to be apprehended by law enforcement. This shield of anonymity allows the cyberstalker to believe that he is not going to get caught and can harass his victim as he pleases, which seems to be a fairly accurate assumption. The other theory Pittaro (2011) discusses is social learning theory. This suggests that when the cyberstalker contacts his victim and she replies, regardless of whether or not it is a positive or negative response, this will lead the cyberstalker to again contact the victim. When we see Sarah contact Melissa, Sarah begins to escalate and continue to send her emails (Ing, 2010). By replying, Melissa unintentionally aided in Sarah’s escalation, and when she did not respond for over a month, Sarah ended her contact with Melissa. Overall, both of these theories provide plausible explanations for what causes these offenders to cyberstalk their victims, and Melissa provides an excellent example to illustrate the social learning theory at work in real life.

Cyberstalking Victims

As mentioned previously, there is limited research in this area as well and therefore should be approached with caution. Research suggests that most cyberstalking victims are women, particularly younger Caucasian women (Pittaro, 2011). They are likely to have had a prior relationship of some kind with the offender, whether it began online or offline. According to Pittaro (2011), the offender may have perceived a relationship with the victim when there may not have actually been one. Other groups that are at a higher risk for cyberstalker victimization are juveniles and people who are new to the Internet. It is believed that cyberstalking victims are likely to experience the same kind of psychological distress as a victim of offline stalking, such as hypervigilance, nightmares, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, fear, helplessness, and anxiety (Pittaro, 2011; Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). Most victims do not report the crime for many different reasons such as the belief that law enforcement will not be able to help them, the belief that the cyberstalking behavior is not against the law, or the belief that law enforcement will not take them seriously if they do report it (Pittaro, 2011; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). While the behavior is certainly a crime in many jurisdictions, law enforcement may not consider it a threat to the victim and therefore not take the victim seriously (Pittaro, 2011; Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). Oftentimes, according to Alexy, Burgess, Baker, and Smoyak (2005), those in authority, such as law enforcement, do not understand the gravity of the situation unless an act of physical violence occurs against the victim. Law enforcement and the legal system have attempted to take this behavior seriously and have enacted laws in order to protect the victim and apprehend the offender, but there are still many problems in regards to cyberstalking within the legal system that need to be improved (Pittaro, 2011).

The Legal System and Cyberstalking

The legal system is in the process of developing laws in regards to cyberstalking because it is such a new occurrence (Pittaro, 2011). The internet was created in the 1960s, but was not used much by the public until the 1990s (Conti, 2007). This is likely the point where the United States began to see cyberstalking. In fact, the first state to include internet communication in its stalking laws was Michigan in 1993 (Ellison & Akdeniz, 1998). By 2010, 47 states had sections on cyberstalking within their stalking laws (Pittaro, 2011). Each jurisdiction defines the crime differently, but includes some of the same elements, namely the content is sent electronically to a specific person, and the content is obscene or threatening and meant to threaten, harass, or coerce the receiving individual (Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). In many cyberstalking cases, however, the offender is anonymous, only using a screen name, or is cyberstalking from another jurisdiction, both of which lead to difficulties in apprehending the suspect (Lipton, 2011; Pittaro, 2011; D’Ovidio & Doyle, 2003). When anonymous, it may be extremely difficult to discover the suspect’s real identity and to apprehend him or her, as was the case with Melissa and Sarah. Sarah cyberstalked from another state and the law enforcement agents were never able to locate her (Ing, 2010). The anonymity and lack of clear, global definitions and laws causes issues with the ability to identify and apprehend a cyberstalker (Pittaro, 2011). Law enforcement may be limited in these ways, but it is nonetheless continuing to develop and adapt alongside the research on cyberstalking.

Is Cyberstalking a Deviant Behavior?

Cyberstalking is viewed differently by different people (Pittaro, 2011; Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). Some law enforcement officers do not view cyberstalking as a significant problem because the victim is not being physically threatened (Pittaro, 2011). In one study only 29.9% of college students reported an incident as cyberstalking while 7.6% did not even report it as being harassment, despite the fact that the case was one where the offender had been convicted of cyberstalking (Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). However, research has suggested that victims of cyberstalking can experience all the fear and anxiety that victims of offline stalking experience (Pittaro, 2011; Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). When Sarah was harassing Melissa, it was simply a nuisance and an annoyance for a while, but when she received over 1,100 emails from Sarah within a one month period, she had a panic attack (Ing, 2010). Melissa said,

…over eleven hundred emails were from her, done within a three week period of time. The last one had come a week before I had come back to the gmail account. I can remember feeling shaky. I can remember my fingers literally not moving properly over my computer keyboard, and most of all I remember finally having to put my head between my knees. This was the first panic attack of my life, brought on my [sic] a woman cyber stalking me. (para. 21-22)

Sarah had certainly frightened and overwhelmed Melissa with such a large amount of emails. Research is debating whether or not cyberstalking may lead to offline stalking, but in each case it can certainly still be a frightening, anxiety-producing situation just like Melissa’s (Pittaro, 2011; Ing, 2010; Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). Regardless of what law enforcement or researchers think, cyberstalking can still have a significant impact on its victims. As Valentine (2001) has so aptly stated, “Some people believe that cyber-stalking is an intrusion but not a physical threat [emphasis added] which is not necessarily true. A potential stalker may not be comfortable in a face-to-face confrontation but will not hesitate to use electronic communications to harass the victim.”

Some may argue that cyberstalking is not a deviant behavior while others would argue that it is without a doubt deviant. According to Thio (2010), deviant behavior can be defined as a behavior that is considered deviant by public whether it is extremely serious and inappropriate, like murder or rape, or it is something viewed as less serious such as tax evasion or stripping. There seems to be no general consensus about cyberstalking at this point. There is a lack of global definitions in the legal system, along with a lack in research and cases reported to law enforcement (Pittaro, 2011; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). These lead to the formation of differing opinions in the general public, with some believing that cyberstalking is not a deviant behavior because they may view it as being an anonymous person who is not physically threatening the victim, while others believe that it is a deviant behavior. With time, more research, and clearer definitions and laws, a public consensus may finally develop, but at this point in time there is not enough information available to make this type of declaration. However, it is likely that cyberstalking will be labeled a deviant behavior as it is already considered an illegal behavior in at least 47 states in the United States (Pittaro, 2011).

Conclusion

Cyberstalking is a fairly new concept, but it is one that law enforcement has attempted to take seriously (Pittaro, 2011; Conti, 2007; Ellison & Akdeniz, 1998). The research that is available, though limited, suggests that cyberstalking is fairly common, especially by educated men on younger women (Pittaro, 2011; Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007). Research also suggests that the victims of cyberstalking are just as likely to experience anxiety, fear, and helplessness as victims of offline stalking are. One thing that is known is that cyberstalkers often lurk in anonymity and it makes them much more difficult to deter or apprehend because they can hide behind the secrecy allowed them over the World Wide Web (Lipton, 2011; Pittaro, 2011). This illusiveness may make cyberstalkers even more threatening, intimidating, and frightening. However, despite the negative impact cyberstalking seems to have on victims, many victims will not report the incidences to law enforcement because they are not sure if it is a crime or if law enforcement will be able to help them (Pittaro, 2011; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). This is a developing subject in research and will likely continue to be researched in the future (Pittaro, 2011). More research is indeed needed to better understand the cyberstalking behavior in order to better inform law enforcement, victims, and the public in general.

References

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