New Law Makes Cyberstalking a Crime — and Victims are Grateful
Oct. 12, 2015
By: Katie Egan
For about a year, it was hard for Carly Hellstrom not to feel completely exposed.
The first thing anyone saw when they Googled her name was a nude photo she took with an ex-boyfriend years earlier when the two were underclassmen at Florida State University.
“It was hell on Earth at the time because it wasn’t illegal,” she said from New York City, where she now lives. “I was living in horror. He was just winning and succeeding at ruining my life.”
But she wouldn’t let him.
Last year, Hellstrom, 22, advocated for and helped pass a new law that went into effect Oct. 1 and makes sexually harassing someone online a crime.
“You never want to put yourself in that situation no matter how much you trust someone or care about someone,” Hellstrom said. “I know people will continue to do it. Take me for example; you don’t want to go through that. It’s just horrible.”
As social media continue to explode, so do cybercrimes. Experts say more of them are being reported — but not nearly as often as they are being committed.
Twenty years ago, before the Internet, stalking required more effort, said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami.
“They had to send a letter or drive by the house. Now, you sit at home and no one can see you,” she said of today’s cyberstalkers. “There’s no risk of being caught.”
That heightened chance of not being apprehended increases the allure of committing cybercrimes and also makes it harder for law enforcement to classify cases correctly, or catch people.
In a records request to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office for cybercrimes resulting in an arrest from June 15, 2014, to June 15, 2015, the Daily News found six cases. Repeat offenders were not counted.
In Florida, during the same time period, there were 1,640 arrest charges under Florida statute 784.048. But the numbers can be deceptive. According to Gretl Plessinger from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, it’s impossible to separate cyberstalking arrests from other crimes, because the statute is written to include other charges such as harassment and someone who repeatedly follows a victim.
Sometimes cyber incidents don’t get to the arrest stage, according to Collier County Sgt. Wade Williams, because the victim becomes uncooperative or investigators run into a dead end.
“Most cases are solved through witness interviews and confessions,” he said. “I’d say the bulk of cases are solved that way.”
First, deputies will gather a statement and any evidence from the victim. Then, they’ll determine who owns the account the messages are coming from.
“Everyone has to have an Internet connection to get to Facebook or whatever,” Williams said. “Internet service really identifies you. You have to pay your bills there; it’s usually attached to an address. With email or Google, you might use a fake name.”
But sometimes, because there isn’t enough evidence, deputies have no choice but to title a case as a “suspicious incident.”
“I suspect there are more of those than more of the ones entitled cyberstalk,” Williams said. “We need to do a better job of that. It’s just difficult when we have 1,000 deputies and a lot of them don’t know what crimes fit or not.”
To combat these types of cybercrimes, Franks thinks there needs to be a serious education effort.
“This is not an outlier and it’s not monsters. These are average people,” she said. “So much of our culture is shaming. It’s rewarding (the perpetrator) and until we confront the fact that our society really doesn’t enjoy this spectrum of abuse, until that changes, we won’t notice.”
Hellstrom and her ex-boyfriend were friends before they got together. She was in a sorority. He was in a fraternity.
They broke up on good terms, she said.
Last year, though, he claimed she overcharged and lost his debit card while she was working at a bar in Tallahassee. Hellstrom denies the accusation.
But the day after that argument, her photo was plastered across the private Facebook group Scalp Hunters. Then, every day for a week-and-a-half, he uploaded her photo multiple times, she said, onto another website, FSUACB.com.
She said she still doesn’t know why.
“No one wants to admit they sent nude photos,” she said. “It’s a stupid thing to do, but you make mistakes.”
Some cyberstalkers don’t even know their victims.
In one year, a Fort Myers woman said she received more than 1,000 violent threats from a cyberstalker she’s never met.
He also hacked into her computer and cellphone and posted her passwords online, making her email, credit card and bank accounts vulnerable. The woman, an attorney for a government agency who does not want to be named, said she had to spend nearly $3,000 to replace them.
The man popped up last year on Twitter, she said, during an anti-rape rally that he offered to live stream. She was a volunteer for an anti-rape group. He seemed as if he wanted to help.
“He seemed harmless,” she said.
But that’s not how it turned out, she said. He’s tweeted bomb threats to her job, forced her off Twitter and threatened to create malicious websites under her name. He consistently ignores restraining orders and has even made death threats on social media to her 7-year-old son.
The whole “unplug and just walk away” thing, she said, doesn’t work with cyberstalkers.
“Once in a while I can take a step back and say it’s just the Internet. Fine. I can just ignore it. Most times, it’s not that easy, she said.”
7 Ways to Stay Safe Online
Sameer Hinduja thinks more people should pause before they post.
The current generation, the criminology and criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University said — compared with the previous one — has been exposed to a lot more online sharing, and very thin notions of privacy.
“They have an invincibility complex on social media sites,” he said. “Where everyone shares a tongue on Instagram and Twitter. People think it’s not going to happen to them.”
But, as social media continue to take off, so do cyber crimes. Experts say, however, that they’re not being recorded as often as they’re being committed.
Hinduja and Sgt. Wade Williams with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office offered these tips:
- Turn off location sharing on smartphones and social media networks.
- Don’t give away your location or any details about yourself.
- Be more wary of romantic relationships.
- Don’t take nude or intimate photos.
- Report the crime or any possible crimes to local law enforcement or call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-780-8477.
- Record everything you can about the perpetrator, including screenshots, user names, profile information and emails.
- If you know who is cyberstalking or harassing you, and you have a substantial fear of violence, Williams suggests filing an injunction.