Forensic Psych

Cyberstalking Victimization: Fear Behind Closed Doors

This is my latest work in cyberstalking victimization. I previously wrote a paper on cyberstalking offenders. Hope you’ll check both out! As always, this is my work, so please don’t plagiarize and cite properly. Thanks!!

While there is a growing amount of research available on cyberstalking, much more is still needed. There are controversies, unknowns, and debates about the offender, the victim, the law, and the psychological, financial, and emotional impact that it has on victims (e.g., Glancy et al., 2007; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Pittaro, 2011; Reyns, et al., 2012). However, it is known that cyberstalking is a reality and it is likely going to increase as technology continues to evolve (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). There is likely some kind of negative impact on victims and cyberstalking laws need to be improved and reexamined in order to effectively help the victim as well as help law enforcement apprehend and prosecute offenders and reduce the occurrence of this crime in the future (Glancy, et al., 2007; Pittaro, 2011; Reno, 1999; Reyns et al., 2012). In the meantime, however, one must always remember that there are real victims out there, like Carla Franklin, who are living a nightmare with real-life consequences and cyberstalking must continue to be taken seriously by law enforcement agencies as well as anyone who is encountering a victim (Pesta, 2012; Pittaro, 2011).
Keywords: cyberstalking, victimization, victim, stalking, controversy

Cyberstalking Victimization: Fear Behind Closed Doors
In December of 2005, Carla Franklin met Shon and they became friends and went on a few dates (Pesta, 2012). He attempted to be controlling and was jealous, even though he and Carla were not dating seriously. Carla was going to move away and decided to tie up some loose ends with Shon, so she emailed him. He emailed her back with some rude remarks. After this incident, Carla expected it to be the end of Shon, however, it was not. He began to text her rude and inappropriate things, and then he began to sporadically and obsessively text, call and email Carla. Carla told him they were not friends anymore and she changed her phone number. He continued to harass her and he spoofed her old cell phone number, sending all kinds of rude and inappropriate texts to her contacts. She later found out that he had also been making YouTube videos about her in which he called her degrading, hateful names. Carla was full of anxiety and became exhausted and depressed. When she found out about the videos, she was shocked and literally felt sick. She took it to court, but her friends and the judge did not take her seriously because no physical harm had been done, but she has recently filed charges against Shon that have been taken seriously. Carla is just one of many victims of cyberstalking and exemplifies a rather typical case.
Cyberstalking research is currently in its preliminary stages and there is still much to be learned (Pittaro, 2011). Just as any research topic in its infancy, there are many controversies, misconceptions, and unknowns about cyberstalking victimization and cyberstalking laws, many of which will be discussed in this paper. This paper attempts to discuss these subjects because stalking in any form is a frightening experience and the prevalence of cyberstalking is likely to increase as technology evolves (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). If this is true, it will be essential to understand cyberstalking better so that offending can be handled appropriately and in addition to this, it is essential to understand so a cyberstalking epidemic in the future can be avoided when technology is at its peak.
What is Cyberstalking?
While there is not an official definition for cyberstalking, it is commonly described as a reliance, “…predominantly on 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). It is difficult to describe a crime that is relatively new to the criminal justice system. However, there are generally four key elements that help legally define it, namely, there was some sort of electronic communication or transmission, it was sent to and received by specific individuals, it was intended to harass, coerce, or intimidate the receiving individual, and the content of the communication was threatening, suggestive, obscene, etc. (Glancy, Newman, Potash, & Tennison, 2007).
The cyberstalking prevalence rate is not yet defined either, though there have been several studies since the 1990s that provide a general range of percentages that look at the prevalence of cyberstalking. Despite this, one must proceed with caution, as these items do not show anything definite. One study looked at the amount of cases that were handled by the New York Police Department’s Computer Investigation & Technology Unit (CITU) between 1996 and 2000 (D’Ovidio & Doyle, 2003). They found that 42.8% of the cases that the CITU had investigated were aggravated harassment, which they also refer to as cyberstalking. In another study by Reyns, Henson, and Fisher (2012), a group of college students was studied and they found that around 40.8% of the students had been cyberstalked at some point in their lives. The students reported the most common forms of cyberstalking to be repeated contact after asking the offender to cease contact and repeated harassment by the offender. One should note that both of these studies found that about 40% of the participants had been cyberstalked. This is interesting, but unfortunately, other findings suggest different rates. For example, one study surveyed 756 college students and found that only 3.7% of the total sample reported being cyberstalked and 31.5% of those who had been stalked offline reported being cyberstalked as well (Alexy, Burgess, Baker, & Smoyak, 2005). Another study of college students found that around 13% of undergraduate females had been stalked and out of this group, 24.7% had been emailed by their stalker (Sheridan & Grant, 2007). These two studies suggest two possibilities, namely, that offline stalking often begins with cyberstalking or that cyberstalking is an extension of offline stalking. This is an item of controversy that will be discussed later. Whatever the case may be, there seem to be quite a few individuals who are primarily cyberstalkers and there also seem to be numerous individuals who stalk offline but also use electronic means to stalk their victims as well. Ultimately, there is no conclusive evidence to support either one of these hypotheses as being the sole reason for cyberstalking occurrence, but there is indeed a debate among researchers at this point in time (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Reyns, et al., 2012; Sheridan & Grant, 2007).
The Cyberstalking Offender
Research has found that the majority of individuals who cyberstalk their victims are males who are either in college or employed (Pittaro, 2011; Glancy, et al., 2007). It is believed that many cyberstalkers begin to talk to their victim in order to befriend her, and they often perceive their interaction with the victim as a developing relationship (Pittaro, 2011). However, the victim does not see it this way and the stalking tends to escalate once the offender feels rejected or harmed. In the case of Carla Franklin and Shon, one can see that the offender is a male who knew Franklin offline, but used both offline and electronic means to stalk her (Pesta, 2012). He was also a student at the time he met Franklin as the offender typology suggests. He seemed to believe that he and Franklin were a couple, even though they were not, and the stalking escalated when she emailed him to say goodbye. Shon likely felt rejected or harmed and he began to obsess over Franklin more and more, leading to years of stalking.
Research has not established if cyberstalkers are merely an extension of offline stalking or if it is something completely separate (Sheridan & Grant, 2007). Reyns et al. (2012) aptly state that,
…a cyberstalker can pursue a victim despite this geographic or temporal separation, sending repeated messages from afar that the victim may not receive until hours later. This suggests that an opportunity to converge physically and temporally with the victim is not required for an offender to cyberstalk a victim as is the case with stalking (hence, a different opportunity structure). This argument allows for the possibility that cyberstalking is a different crime than stalking, but it could also be that cyberstalking is a variant of stalking. (p. 2)
In addition to these studies, Parsons-Pollard and Moriarty (2009) discuss the definition of cyberstalking, and describe that it is often seen as an extension of offline stalking. They also note that whichever way cyberstalking is defined will determine how it is handled legally. This is a significant point because research has not been able to come to a conclusion at this point in time. If cyberstalking is merely an extension of offline stalking, what will become of the cases that involve pure cyberstalking that never escalates to offline stalking? Does it not matter in the eyes of the law or does it not also have a negative impact on its victims? It is likely that offline stalking and cyberstalking interact but, also, may sometimes involve pure cyberstalking or pure offline stalking. However, research is unable to confirm this statement at this point in time. In order to handle it appropriately in the justice system and in order to be able to effectively help victims, this debate needs to be officially settled.
The Cyberstalking Victim
Victim Characteristics
Most studies have found that victims of cyberstalking are most often groups that are particularly vulnerable to victimization, such as women, youth, and individuals who are new to the Internet (Pittaro, 2011). According to Pittaro (2011), research suggests that the majority of cyberstalking victims are Caucasian females who had some sort of past relationship with the offender, whether it was real or something that the offender alone believed to be real. However, one must again proceed with caution knowing that this research is still in its infancy. However, most of this is exemplified in Carla Franklin’s case (Pesta, 2012). Franklin is an African-American female who had been friends with Shon in the past, but Shon believed that there was more to the relationship that Franklin did. According to Pittaro (2011), Franklin fits two out of three criteria of the typical cyberstalking victim.
Victim Impact
Victim impact is a controversial issue when discussing cyberstalking (see Reyns, et al., 2012 for example). Some people believe that “…being physically followed and confronted (i.e., stalking) is probably more likely to generate fear of being harmed in the victim than receiving repeated, even threatening, messages electronically (i.e., cyberstalking)” (Reyns, et al., 2012). However, there are others who suggest that cyberstalking is just as harmful as offline stalking (Glancy, et al., 2007; Pittaro, 2011; Reno, 1999). Former Vice President Al Gore once said, “Make no mistake: this kind of harassment can be as frightening and as real as being followed and watched in your neighborhood or in your home” (Reno, 1999). Other researchers agree with Mr. Gore, such as Pittaro (2011), who reports that victims of cyberstalking may change their eating and sleeping patterns, may have nightmares and be hypervigilant because they feel anxious, helpless, and fearful for their own safety. Glancy, Newman, Potash, and Tennison (2007), reviewed the literature and they stated that,
It could be argued that cyberstalkers cause less impact because the stalking is more removed and anonymous, perhaps lessening the risk of face-to-face contact. However, a contrary argument could also be used – that cyberstalking involves a pervasive, sometimes anonymous, form of stalking, creating a fear of the unknown that is not controllable by the victim…Cyberstalking also makes it easier to harass the victim at work and at home without any inconvenience to the stalker. (p. 219)
They bring up some thoughtful points because the anonymity and constant presence of an offender in one’s phone, email, social networking site, or elsewhere would certainly have to be overwhelming. The sense of not knowing whom the offender is or when the offender may go beyond the Internet or phone and show up in person may also be very intimidating. However, there is no evidence that cyberstalking victims are more or less disturbed or frightened than victims of offline stalking (Glancy, et al., 2007).
In Franklin’s case, she describes several negative emotions and reactions, such as fear, shock, and depression (Pesta, 2012). The constant and obsessive contact, as well as the negative comments circulating the Internet because of Shon, all led to Franklin’s period of depression. Franklin did not know what to do. She did not believe she could report Shon for being a nuisance; that it would not be considered stalking. Franklin says, “Adding to my anxiety, some of my ‘friends’ told me I was making a big deal out of nothing [emphasis added]…I also learned that Shon was going around calling me a liar. I became exhausted, depressed” (Pesta, 2012, para. 25). Regardless of what the research is unable to verify at this time, it is clear that cyberstalking has some sort of an impact on a person’s health and life. More research is still needed in order to have a better understanding of the impact that cyberstalking has on victims (Glancy, et al., 2007).
The Victim and the Law
As has been the case with many crimes, cyberstalking victims are often not taken seriously by the justice system and often the victims are hesitant to report that they are being stalked online or via electronic communication of some sort (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). While 38 out of 50 states have some kind of cyberstalking law within their physical stalking statutes, oftentimes the police still do not know how to handle cyberstalking cases (The National Conference of State Legislatures, 2012; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). Many researchers report that law enforcement officers will tell victims of cyberstalking to simply turn off their computers or to come back when the stalker approaches them or threatens them offline (Alexy, et al., 2005; Miller, 2012; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Pittaro, 2011). Turning off one’s computer is likely impossible in this day and age because even one’s work often involves using the computer and the Internet (Pittaro, 2011). Pittaro (2011) declares that these responses are not helpful for a victim and are rather unrealistic, a statement with which one must agree. In an age where technology is everywhere, it would be difficult to live a modern life without it. The problem with these responses is that victims often avoid reporting for these exact reasons; they fear that they will not be taken seriously because of stalking that occurs online or over some means of electronic communication device (Alexy, et al., 2005). This is an item that is controversial regarding cyberstalking because so little is known about cyberstalking and its impact on the victim, but even the former Attorney General, Janet Reno (1999), recognized that it is necessary to “name the behavior as cyberstalking and validate that a crime is occurring when working with individual victims” (para. 79). This would certainly be helpful to victims, especially the ones who are deeply impacted by the cyberstalking behavior and fear that they will not be taken seriously by law enforcement. If they were able to validate cyberstalking as a crime to a victim who wanted to report it, that would be of tremendous benefit for a victim who just wants the victimization to cease.
A lack of understanding. The latest research shows that law enforcement officers sometimes receive training about cyberstalking, but oftentimes victims will encounter an officer who has no knowledge of cyberstalking statutes and does not have training on how to handle a cyberstalking victim (Alexy, et al., 2005; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). According to Alexy, Burgess, Baker, and Smoyak (2005), there is a significant concern that there is often minimalization of cyberstalking because law enforcement officers lack education on the crime and do not understand the seriousness of the situation until it is too late and it has escalated into a physical attack. There are many problems with cyberstalking laws at this point in time that add to the lack of education as well as the lack of reporting and convictions, such as issues with jurisdiction, anonymity, cable service providers, and level of threat (D’Ovidio & Doyle, 2003; Glancy, et al., 2007; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Pittaro, 2011).
Legal issues of cyberstalking. One of the largest issues facing law enforcement and victims is an issue with jurisdiction (D’Ovidio & Doyle, 2003; Pittaro, 2011). Now that technology involves mobile phones, almost constant access to the Internet, personal computers, and the like, it is easier to be in contact with people from all over the state, country and the world (D’Ovidio & Doyle, 2003). This is problematic when it comes to apprehending and prosecuting cyberstalking offenders because cyberstalking may cross state boundaries or countries. In the research by D’Ovidio and Doyle (2003), they found that 28% of the cyberstalking cases investigated by the CITU in New York were outside of the local jurisdiction or out of the country. This creates many problems. For example, they state that offenders living outside of the jurisdiction will certainly have a negative impact on a case. In New York, they state, the District Attorney is not likely to prosecute cyberstalking cases if the suspect is from outside the local jurisdiction. Jurisdictional issues are of great importance in cyberstalking. They prevent victims from being able to take their offender to court and they hinder law enforcement from being able to appropriately serve justice and protect the victim. Jurisdictional issues need to be resolved in order to help the police, and more importantly, the victim. By solving the jurisdictional issues and creating a way around them, victims will be able to experience relief from the persistent cyberstalking behavior and see their offender prosecuted.
The second issue regarding cyberstalking laws is that offenders are often anonymous (Pittaro, 2011; Reno, 1999). In many cases, an offender can easily hide his true identity or pretend to be someone else (Pittaro, 2011). Many times victims are warned to use gender-ambiguous screen names and avoid making their personal information available on the Internet in order to help prevent cyberstalking. However, one must consider that if a victim can take these precautions to avoid being stalked, an offender could do the same things in order to avoid detection and stalk in anonymity. However, there are other ways that an offender can cyberstalk in anonymity, such as email servers that do not require much identifying information or verify one’s true identity, as well as the offender’s ability to pretend to be someone else. An individual can call himself whatever he desires, whether it be a name or a screen name, and he rarely has to verify that what he calls himself is indeed his true identity. This is problematic for law enforcement and for victims because this makes it much more difficult to apprehend the offender and not knowing who or where her offender is may make it more frightening for the victim. Developing a secure system of identification on the Internet may be of benefit to both the victim and law enforcement.
A third issue is cable and Internet service providers (Pittaro, 2011). When a victim gets a warrant from the court for the offender’s IP address, the cable or Internet service provider must inform their client in advance that someone is attempting to gain access to his or her IP address according to the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (Reno, 1999). Again, this is harmful to both the victim and law enforcement because it informs the offender in advance that law enforcement and the victim know his identity and this allows him time to delete incriminating evidence, harm his computer, escape out of town, or any number of harmful or hindering acts that would put the investigation at risk (Pittaro, 2011). Take Carla Franklin for an example (Pesta, 2012). Franklin filed a court order to get her stalker’s IP address and the Internet service provider alerted the person who owned the IP address. It was then that Shon’s lawyer showed up in court to fight it. This helped Franklin verify her suspicions that Shon was her stalker and she recently filed a lawsuit against Shon for damages caused by his stalking. However, it could have been problematic if Shon had decided to delete evidence of his cyberstalking because he had been alerted of her court order in advance, but to the benefit of Franklin, it does not appear that he did such a thing. Perhaps this policy is one that needs to be revisited as technology and misuse of technology increases in order to help the victims of technology misuse as well as law enforcement officials who are attempting to solve a cybercrime such as cyberstalking. Offenders should not have an unfair advantage because this could ruin, or at least jeopardize, an inquiry by law enforcement and therefore also hurt the victim as well.
The final issue is the level of threat that an offender expresses to a victim (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Pittaro, 2011). There are some federal cyberstalking laws that require a direct threat in order to convict someone of cyberstalking. However, oftentimes in cyberstalking the threat is implicit or not clear (Pittaro, 2011). Sometimes a threat is not necessary to cause the victim to be fearful because the anonymity itself could cause her to be fearful (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). Threats, coercion, intimidation, etc. are essential elements in cyberstalking law according to Glancy et al. (2007). With this being the case, it may once again make it difficult to apprehend an offender. However, one could argue that to be realistic, some kind of threat, coercion or intimidation must indeed be present in order for law enforcement to become involved. If they cannot show that the offender is doing something harmful, then they have nothing to base the case on. This is why more research is needed on victim impact and on cyberstalking in general. Cyberstalking needs to be better understood in order to more effectively help victims cope with their victimization and also to help law enforcement apprehend, prosecute, and eventually reduce the number of cyberstalking offenses altogether.
Cyberstalking is a fairly new crime and more research is certainly needed to better understand how it needs to be handled in every arena (Glancy, et al., 2007; Pittaro, 2011). While there is a growing amount of research available on cyberstalking, much more is still needed. There are controversies, unknowns, and debates about the offender, the victim, the law, and the psychological, financial, and emotional impact that it has on victims (e.g., Glancy et al., 2007; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009; Pittaro, 2011; Reyns, et al., 2012). However, it is known that cyberstalking is a reality and it is likely going to increase as technology continues to evolve (Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). There is likely some kind of negative impact on victims and cyberstalking laws need to be improved and reexamined in order to effectively help the victim as well as help law enforcement apprehend and prosecute offenders and reduce the occurrence of this crime in the future (Glancy, et al., 2007; Pittaro, 2011; Reno, 1999; Reyns et al., 2012). However, one must always remember that there are real victims out there, like Carla Franklin, and it is a living nightmare with real-life consequences and it must continue to be taken seriously by law enforcement agencies as well as anyone who is encountering a victim (Pesta, 2012; Pittaro, 2011). It is quite safe to say that this is certainly going to be researched and understood better in the future because it is something that could indeed have a huge role and impact in the future if it is not better understood (Pittaro, 2011).

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