Jayne Hitchcock panicked when the postman delivered a padded envelope with a mismatched postmark and return address. This was it, she thought; her cyberstalker had found her. She called the police and sat outside with her cordless phone until they came. It was a false alarm; the package contained a late Christmas present. “It turned out to be incense,” she says. “It was so embarrassing.”
Hitchcock, an author, has lived in fear since 1996 when a dispute with a New York literary agency turned into a case of online terrorism against her. As a result of her saga, she joined Working to Halt Online Abuse, or WHOA, found at www.haltabuse.org, a group established in 1997 to give cyberstalking victims the tools to fight back.
In January, WHOA released a survey containing what may be the only statistics about cyberstalking. Each week, the group reports, it receives about 100 requests for help; the majority of victims are between the ages of 18 and 25. Some 95 percent of the requests turn out to be legitimate, WHOA reveals. Of those cases, contacting the offender’s Internet service provider stopped the harassment quickly 81.5 percent of the time.
If that doesn’t work, Hitchcock recommends trying the police, FBI, or state attorney—or, as in her case, getting a private attorney should law enforcement offer no relief.
After Hitchcock complained about the literary agency to her misc.writing newsgroup, her name, address, and phone number started appearing on dozens of forged UseNet postings saying she was available for sex 24 hours a day. Her enemies bombed her Internet account with e-mail. The local police department gave her no help. “They didn’t even know what a newsgroup is,” Hitchcock says. “They weren’t online. They didn’t have e-mail.” She did get help from her “Internet posse,” 10 tech-savvy misc.writing posters who figured out the origin of the messages and helped delete them, then contacted the senders’ ISPs. Law enforcement could do the same thing—if they would learn to use the tools. “Even today it’s amazing how many police departments aren’t as wired as they should be,” Hitchcock says.
David Goldman, the founder of HateWatch.org, agrees. Goldman, who recently shut down HateWatch to launch a more personal crusade against cyberstalking (www.paragraph175.org), says hate groups draw too much attention, actual cyber-terrorism too little. “People are being harassed, stalked, and terrorized and not afforded protection by law enforcement,” he says.
Young women are likely being targeted, Hitchcock says, because they often talk back to harassers in chat rooms, e-mail, and UseNet postings. “That’s what harassers want,” she says. “If you ignore it, most of the time it’ll stop.” Not always: Online wolves often trail anyone who disagrees with them. “I had no idea what was going to happen next. I was checking under my car before I got in,” Hitchcock says. She even got a concealed-weapon permit in two states and joined the National Rifle Association.
Thankfully, gun-toting isn’t the only defense. Internet users need to apply offline caution to the Internet, Hitchcock says. Don’t go into private chat rooms with strangers; block all incoming instant messages from strangers; avoid gender-specific screen names like “Miss Kitty.” Women often will enter private details like marital status, place of employment, hometown, and even measurements into public-user profiles. “Would you say that stuff to somebody standing next to you in an elevator?” she warns. “If not, don’t say it online.”
Hitchcock has also been pushing for a federal law against cyberstalking. A bill defeated last term did not specifically mention stalking by electronic communications. “I know prosecutors and police. If you don’t have (the specific words) in there, it won’t work,” she says. Faced with techno-libertarian resistance to federal intervention, the die-hard techie counters that the Internet can remain free even if it’s regulated to protect safety: “Hey, I’m a writer. This is not about freedom of speech. This is harassment, period. If it’s illegal offline, it should be illegal online,” she says.