Cyberstalking is prevalent in modern societies (Chang, 2020). Cyberstalking is defined by Sammons & Cross (2017) as ‘the act of persistent and unwanted contact from someone online. A definition by the Department of Justice, Office of Victims of Crime, refers to cyberstalking as a pattern of repeated and unwanted attention, harassment, contact, or any other course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear (Blanch, 2016). The act may involve different incidents, such as libel, defamation, threats, sexual harassment, or other behaviors to influence, control, or intimidate the targeted person. Internet technologies have provided a space for some kind of deviant behaviors in the present time, and cyberstalking is one of those deviant behaviors (Chang, 2020). Cyberstalking involves using information and communication technologies to harass people (Chang, 2020).
One cannot understand cyberstalking adequately without defining stalking in the first place. This is because cyberstalking is simply a form of stalking, with the difference being that the former is perpetrated with information and communication technologies and on people in distant places. In contrast, the latter is perpetrated within a short distance, whereby the perpetrator could see the victim. Before the emergence of modern communication and information technologies, the act was traditional (i.e., stalking), which involved the physical surveillance of the victim, including mailing letters to them (Sheldon et al., 2019). Sammons & Cross (2017) have also observed that people who stalk others online may also stalk them in real life. Sheridan & Grant (2007) found that the online stalkers of some of their research participants stalked them online for about four weeks and then switched to offline stalking. In both cases, the behaviors were the same but with different means.
Stalking has generated dozens of definitions from individual scholars and organizations, but two of them will be used in this paper. Sheldon et al. (2019) define stalking as a serious predatory behavior that arrives from the evolutionary need for control in pursuing resources and reputation’. When one compares the definitions of stalking in this paragraph with that of cyberstalking offered by Sammons & Cross (2017) above, one can see that the behaviors are the same with the difference being that cyberstalking is perpetrated online.
Another name for cyberstalking, particularly the type that involves nude images and videos, is ‘sextortion.’ According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, 2018), children and young adults are particularly susceptible to cyberstalking. Sextortion occurs ‘when a victim is threatened with the release of private and sensitive information unless sexual favors, nude photos, or other demands are met (FBI, 2018).
The Department of Justice, Office of Victims of Crime identifies the following as behaviors or activities that constitute cyberstalking:
- Repeated, unwanted, intrusive, and frightening communications from the perpetrator by phone, mail, and/or email.
- Repeatedly leaving or sending the unwanted victim items, presents, or flowers.
- Following or lying in wait for the victim at places such as home, school, work, or place of recreation
- Making direct or indirect threats to harm the victim, the victim’s children, relatives, friends, or pets
- Damaging or threatening to damage the victim’s property
- Harassing the victim through the Internet
- Posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the Internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth
- Obtaining personal information about the victim by accessing public records, using Internet search services, hiring private investigators, searching through the victim’s garbage, following the victim, and contacting the victim’s friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, etc.
Having define cyberstalking above and showing behaviors that constitute cyberstalking, the rest of this paper will demonstrate the prevalence of cyberstalking and explore forms of cyberstalking victimization and the impacts on the victims. After this, it will discuss the available legislations under which cyberstalking is treated under the laws of the United States, in addition to other legal matters relating to the offense, including sentencing options and successful convictions and sentences, and also outcomes of appeals.
Prevalence, Forms, and Impacts of Cyberstalking
Incidences of cyberstalking may appear more prevalent than many people would imagine. According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1 in 6 women in the country and 1 in 19 men have been stalked at a certain time in their lives (Wilkinson, 2016). It also shows that the experiences of cyberstalking in these victims instilled fear in them or made them believe that they or someone close to them faced the danger of being harmed or killed (Wilkinson, 2016). The above statistics indicate that females are the main victims of cyberstalking, with a high margin compared to males. Figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that a lot of victims of stalking were stalked for months or years and 11 percent of victims were stalked for up to five years or even more (Wilkinson, 2016). With the United Kingdom as another example, cyberstalking incidents are similarly high. The prosecutions of cyberstalkers in the United Kingdom skyrocketed to nearly 300 percent (899 incidents) in five years to the year 2011 (Fenwick, 2011). In that same year, statistics by the Crown Prosecution Service show that 33 percent of stalking incidents prosecuted were committed via email, 32 percent of incidents via text messages, and 8.4 percent of incidents were committed through social networking sites (Fenwick, 2011). While these statistics do not take into account all the stalking incidents in the United Kingdom but cyberstalking only, they certainly demonstrate the extent to which modern communication technologies provide an avenue for people to be stalked and suffer the consequences of stalking.
While cyberstalking is widely conceptualized as a form of stalking whereby information and communication technology are involved, differences abound in how the offenses may be perpetrated. The victim may be reached through a variety of online methods, and the actual conduct of a certain online stalker may differ from that used by another stalker. United States Code, Title 18, Section 2261A recognizes the Internet, mail, and telephone as channels through which a victim of cyberstalking could be reached. The provisions of this law will be discussed in depth under the relevant subheading. Similarly, the Department of Justice Office of Victims of Crime recognizes mail, email, and phone as a source of cyberstalking. In the UK also, the Sentencing Council (n.d.) recognizes the use of text messages, voicemails, or emails as means of perpetrating cyberstalking. This indicates that not only does the United States acknowledge these information and communication technologies as instrumental in the perpetration of cyberstalking.
Cyberstalking via emails seems commonplace. For example, a study of 1,051 victims of stalking and cyberstalking by Sheridan & Grant (2007) found that about half of them had received emails from their stalkers. The above means of cyberstalking recognized by the Sentencing Council (n.d.), however, are not the only means through which a victim could be stalked online. While cyber stalking on social media may involve emailing the victim through the medium, it can also involve other conduct, such as posting to the person’s timeline or making a comment, or responding to the person’s comments. Online stalkers can also impersonate their target on social media (Cox, 2014).
While stalking is an offense on its own, as defined by the law, it is also connected to a number of other offenses. Often, stalkers and cyberstalkers follow their victims for the purpose of committing other crimes against them. Researchers have been able to discover the link between stalking and interpersonal crimes against the victims (McQuade, 2014). Such interpersonal crimes could involve the most serious types of crimes against the victim, such as homicide (McQuade, 2014). Nevertheless, stalkers also commit other types of crimes against their victims, such as property crimes, robbery, and rape (McQuade, 2014). These are understandable because a rapist targeting a specific victim may succeed more easily by establishing the victim’s route and the time the victim is likely to be on that route, for example, to work out when to strike. This is also the case with robbery and property crimes. A robber may want to follow the targeted victim around repeatedly to understand the victim’s movement. These issues are not limited to traditional stalking but also extend to cyberstalking because as observed by Sammons & Cross (2017), some cyberstalkers proceed to meet their victims in real life. However, while an online stalker planning interpersonal violence against their victim may proceed to meet them physically, this may not be the case with an online stalker planning a property crime. The latter may simply stalk the victim online in order to understand the victim’s movement so as to know when it is safe to commit the property crime.
Stalking offenses are also connected to hate crimes (Roberts et al., 2014). This is particularly the case with hate crimes motivated by the victim’s lifestyles, such as the stalking of celebrities based on their distinctive lifestyles (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). A popular example of celebrity cyberstalking is one involving actress Patricia Arquette, which led to her deactivating her Facebook account in 2011 following the advice of her security persons (Sammons & Cross, 2017). The deactivation of her Facebook account stands as evidence of the kind of distress that could result from cyberstalking, which can force the victim to change their lifestyles. Being a popular actress could mean that Arquette should be active on Facebook for the purposes of keeping her fans updated, but the distress caused by cyberstalking and security fears meant that she had to deactivate her account.
However, the wealthy and famous are not the only victims of cyberstalking. Rather average citizens are victimized frequently too. FBI (2018), on its website, describes two unrelated popular cyberstalking cases that made news headlines in the United States in recent years. These two cases involved the “sextortion” version of cyberstalking. The first case occurred in Houston where Heriberto Latigo threatened his ex-girlfriend with her nude photos and used this repeatedly to lure her into having sex with him. Latigo did not end up having sex with his victim. Rather he also sent her threatening messages and horrible images in addition to sending nude photos to the sister of his victim and the victim’s male colleagues. The second case occurred in Crescent, Oklahoma where Troy Allen Martin also used a similar method to get his victim to pay him a whopping $50,000. Having collected such a huge amount of cash from his victim, Martin also demanded sex and relationship from his victim. The two perpetrators were eventually convicted of these crimes under the federal cyberstalking statute and sentenced to prison. Martin was sentenced to 33 months in prison by a federal judge while Latigo was sentenced to 60 months in prison.
Nevertheless, there had been more serious cases of cyberstalking in the United States that had led to murders. United States v. David T. Matusiewicz, according to Wilkinson (2016), is the ‘first federal cyberstalking case resulting in death. This particular case is also unique because it involved three defendants. The defendants had stalked a woman called Christine Belford for a period of three years and frequently harassed and intimidated the victim and her children. On 13th February 2013, Matusiewicz and another man drove to a courthouse as they believed that Belford would be there, and on reaching there, Matusiewicz shot Belford killing her at the stop. He also shot Belford’s friend, Mulford, as she was attempting to flee. This case illustrates the seriousness of cyberstalking as a crime in the US. To think that an innocent woman and her children would be stalked for three long years and eventually shot dead alongside her friend speaks volumes about how cyberstalking is a serious security threat in the country.
Sammons & Cross (2017) refer to a poll by the Pew Research Center to illustrate the prevalence of cyberstalking as experienced by young persons. The poll found that up to 18 percent of the participants stated that they knew people who had been stalked while 8 percent of them reported that they had been personally stalked. The study also found that women were more likely than men to experience cyberstalking involving sexual harassment. In fact, cyberstalking of women according to that study most often involved sexual harassment considering that up to 25 percent of the 26 percent of the women (aged 18 to 24) in the study stated that they had been sexually harassed by cyberstalkers compared to only 13 percent of men who were sexually harassed by the online stalkers.
The above study provides a clear picture of online victimization associated with cyberstalking. The idea that these offenders commit more serious offenses (e.g., sexual harassment) in addition to online stalking itself indicates the seriousness of cyberstalking as a modern social problem. While the results of the above study by Pew Research Center are interesting, the study has some notable limitations with respect to understanding victimization patterns. It was conducted on 18-24 year-olds. One may argue that people within this age bracket are more likely to become victims of sexual harassment both online and offline due to them being in their prime age when they are more likely to appear attractive, thus, targeted by sexual predators. It is not known if this is a general problem equally experienced by older adults or even adolescents who use the Internet. More research is needed to understand this. Assuming that older adults are not sexually harassed by online stalkers, do they experience other types of harassment or threat by these stalkers? Future research can offer insights into this.
Online dating has been identified in recent times as one of the sources of cyberstalking (Gopalan, 2019). Some people who meet others online for dating purposes may end up stalking the would-be intimate partner when the dating did not go well. That is when one of the parties decides to end communication. Sheldon et al.’s (2019) work can explain the issue of stalking in relation to dating to a certain extent. They suggest that stalking is associated with a phenomenon known as an obsessive relational intrusion – a behavior designed for intimacy development. They define obsessive relational intrusion as ‘an unwanted desire for intimacy through repetitive invasion of a person’s sense of physical or symbolic privacy.’ From this viewpoint, stalking may not necessarily result from hatred but rather from the need to become closer or intimate with someone. Stalking may then commence when the other person no longer feels interested in becoming intimate. The other person’s obsession with getting intimate with the individual would eventually trigger stalking behavior. In other words, since the other person no longer allows the dating partner to get closer to them in a mutually-arranged manner, stalking then becomes an option for the estranged partner to continue getting closer.
The issue of online dating can be widely conceptualized under intimate partner violence – one of the categories of offenses where stalking is common. Often, intimate partners, particularly men, stalk their wives or girlfriends following separation or divorce (Sheridan & Grant, 2007). In fact, Sheridan & Grant (2007) found in their study that ‘those who target ex-intimates remain the most populous stalker type.’ Spitzberg’s (2002) report had previously suggested this. Such a form of stalking has also led to many cases of grievous bodily harm, including the murder of the victim. It is then not surprising that Section 2261(2) of Title 18, United States Code was enacted originally as part of the Violence Against Women Act (2005).
Nevertheless, while Sheldon et al. (2019) suggest that an obsession with becoming intimate could lead to stalking behavior, all stalking behaviors are not connected to intimacy or relationship. Some are actually caused by hatred. The issue of stalking motivated by hate crime has been described above. Although this may also involve a kind of obsession, that sort of obsession could be related to eliminating the person out of hate as opposed to forcefully becoming intimate with the person. Sheldon et al. (2019) argue that stalking is connected to the need to control people for reasons of reputation. This idea can as well explain the stalking and cyberstalking conducts motivated by hate crimes, such as those connected to homophobic behaviors. With the resentment of homosexuality in certain cultures by those who feel that the sexual orientation is against their culture or that it brings shame or disreputation to their culture, stalking and cyberstalking of these people can be viewed as part of the need to control the person. That is, the victims are controlled and dealt with in such a manner that could enable the perpetrators to reclaim their culture and consequently earn back their lost reputation.
However, while stalking and cyberstalking are the same, with the differences being the means of perpetration, as previously stated, Shinder & Cross (2008) have identified a major difference between the two. They note that cyberstalkers, just like all other cybercriminals, are not physically violent. After all, it is ‘the ability to commit their crimes from a distance that attracts many criminals to the Net in the first place. Their observation is important to be discussed here because it shows that there are different patterns of victimization as well as the likelihood or unlikelihood of certain types of victimization. It is understandable that physical stalkers may end up becoming violent to their victims since they can reach them physically. This is not the case with online stalkers who simply use communication technology to reach their victims. Thus, the impacts of victimization from cyberstalking are only psychological, such as distress and depression.
Nevertheless, cyberstalking may be too serious to cost someone’s life in the form of suicide. Threats by online stalkers could cause significant damages to their victims, some of which may be long-term irrespective of the fact that these offenders did not meet their victims physically (Sheridan et al., 2003). In fact, it has been found that some cyberstalking incidents are so serious and damaging to their victims to the extent that the victims wish that the perpetrators should attack them physically instead (Mullen et al., 2000).
Nevertheless, while cyberstalkers cannot practically commit violence against their victims, it is also important to acknowledge that online stalking could progress to offline stalking (Sammons & Cross, 2017), as previously stated. An example of this could be a case of an online stalker on social media who sees posts from their victim whereby the victim says that they would be at a specific place at a certain time and date and then proceed to meet the victim at the said location, eventually harming the victim. Shinder & Cross (2008) also argue that while cyberstalking is in itself a non-violent crime, such a claim cannot hold when a child sexual predator uses the Internet to identify the location of a child whom he ends up meeting physically for the purposes of assaulting, raping or even killing the child.
Legislations and Legal Matters
Laws and legal issues relating to stalking in the US, which also includes cyberstalking, are equally connected to harassment, threats, sextortion, and swatting (Wilkinson, 2016). All of these offenses can be committed both online and in real life. Revenge porn is also another important term that is also treated under cyberstalking (Blanch, 2016) in some cases, depending on the circumstances surrounding the act. These behaviors are prohibited by federal criminal laws (Wilkinson, 2016). However, some of these acts are not specifically mentioned in federal laws. With cyberharassment as an example, Blanch (2016) observed that often, cyberharassment is used synonymously with cyberstalking, however, the federal law does not make any general reference to cyberharassment although conduct meeting the criteria for cyber harassment can be prosecuted under other available laws taking the specific facts into account. Cyberharassment is defined by the National Conference of State Legislatures as an act that ‘pertains to threatening or harassing email messages, instant messages, or to blog entries or Web sites dedicated solely to tormenting an individual.
- The federal stalking statute for stalking is the United States Code, Title 18, Section 2261A. This statute covers both stalking and cyberstalking, which is understandable as both behaviors are the same but through different means. Section 2261A deals with stalking in real-life situations, while Section 2261A(2) deals with cyberstalking. Cyberstalking under the latter section considers stalking using the Internet, mail, and telephones. The latter section has two main provisions subdivided into Subsections A and B. However, both subsections have things in common: Both provisions require that the defendant act with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person.
- Both provisions also require the use of mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or electronic communication system of interstate commerce, or any other interstate or foreign commerce facility. Usually, this element is met with the use of the Internet.
- Both provisions also require that the defendant engaged in the course of conduct, meaning more than one act.
The Subsection A of Section 2261A(2) of the named federal statute further demands that the conduct puts the act’s victim in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death, the victim’s intimate partner or spouse, or the victim’s immediate family member. For Subsection B, the course of the conduct would cause the victim or attempts to cause the victim, or reasonably expected to cause the victim or the victim’s immediate family member, substantial emotional distress.
Previously, this statute required that the perpetrator and the victim be in separate jurisdictions, but this caused some problems, such as making the statute inapplicable in several stalking cases (Blanch, 2016). However, this barrier was eliminated in 2013 when a significant amendment was made to the cyberstalking statute (Blanch, 2016). With the amendment, it has become easier to prosecute the perpetrators of cyberstalking nationwide.
The punishments for violating Section 2261A vary from five years to life in prison. Life in prison as a maximum penalty can be imposed when a stalking or cyberstalking incident results in the death of the victim. This was the case with the sentences imposed on the offenders in the United States v. David T. Matusiewicz previously discussed. David Matusiewicz, who fired the shots that killed Belford, her friend, Mulford, and his co-offender, Amy Gonzalez, were sentenced to life in prison. In this case, one of the defendants, Thomas Matusiewicz, the father of David Matusiewicz, took his own life as a gun battle with the Delaware Capitol Police Officers was ongoing.
Further, Lenore Matusiewicz, the mother of David Matusiewicz, who fired the shot, was also given life in prison due to the role she played in this serious crime. However, she later died as her appeal was pending (Department of Justice, 2018). David Matusiewicz and Amy Gonzalez later appealed their sentences but the Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed their criminal convictions and life sentences (Department of Justice, 2018).
The life imprisonments imposed on all these defendants are strong evidence that the laws on cyberstalking work and that a perpetrator could receive a maximum of life imprisonment when cyberstalking progresses to murder. Nevertheless, life imprisonment is a normal sentence for murder, and it should not be so surprising that they received such a sentence because murder would normally attract a life sentence. It should not make any difference whether the event that led to the murder started through cyberstalking or another event. Nevertheless, the prosecutors used the defendants in this horrible case to set a national example, sending out a strong message that the perpetrators of cyberstalking are not above the law. This is reflected in the statement made by the United States Attorney as he affirmed the criminal convictions and life sentences of David Matusiewicz and Amy Gonzalez where he called the case a watershed case of national importance’ further stating that cyberstalking is a form of psychological terror that deeply impacts its victims’ (Department of Justice, 2018).
Examples of stalking behavior have been described in the introductory part of this paper, such as spying, watching, or forcing contact with the victim, including through social media. However, prosecutors are advised that the examples are not an exhaustive list of stalkers’ conduct but rather the typical behaviors to look out for, as stalkers’ behaviors may vary or change. For cyberstalking offenses, certain forms of evidence would be required by the court that could satisfy the law that illegal activity has taken place, and these may include evidence of electronic messages and more (El Asam & Samara, 2016). Screenshots and printouts of posts could also be used as evidence of cyberstalking incidents (Sammons & Cross, 2017).
Approaches to dealing with cyberstalking and related offenses within the United States laws are multifaceted (Wilkinson, 2016). FBI (2018) describes several processes in preserving evidence for cyberstalking offenses, such as sending letters to social media companies to request that they preserve relevant records that could be used to establish if an offense had occurred following suspicion or report by the victim. In Latigo’s case, for instance, the FBI sent such letters to a social media company to ensure that Latigo did not cover his tracks. FBI agents could also seize the suspect’s computers and obtain search warrants to search the suspect’s home. Both of these were done in Latigo’s case.
In some cases, the FBI could consult the members of ‘The Innocent Images Task Force’ for assistance in investigating cyberstalking cases. Innocent Images Task Force focuses on the investigations of child pornography but could be used for other investigations. FBI (2018) describes how it hired this task force to investigate Latigo’s electronic devices on its website. They uncovered photos of the case, including documents showing that Latigo used those devices to access social media sites where he committed the crimes. In Martin’s case, the FBI recovered numerous text messages and voicemails relating to the sextortion and used these as part of the evidence needed to charge the perpetrator.
Some cases of stalking, however, could be difficult to deal with under local laws due to the difficulty establishing jurisdiction in some difficult cases because technology has erased physical borders. This is the case with all the related offenses, that is, stalking, harassment, and threats (Wilkinson, 2016). According to Wilkinson (2016), ‘with the increased use of technology and the multi-jurisdictional nature of many of these crimes, federal law enforcement, and prosecutors can offer additional resources to effectively pursue these cases that may exceed the capacity of local law enforcement.
This paper has explored the notion of cyberstalking. It has defined cyberstalking and also provided examples of behaviors constituting cyberstalking. The definition of cyberstalking suggests that the offense is simply an offshoot of traditional stalking. The main difference is that the former is perpetrated with the help of information and communications technology. In contrast, the former simply involves activities in real-life situations. However, the paper has also demonstrated with research evidence that cyberstalking sometimes progresses to offline stalking, whereby desperate stalkers determine to meet their victims in real-life situations. Cyberstalking has numerous impacts on the victims. These impacts are mostly psychological because the perpetrators only communicate with their victims without meeting them in real-life situations. The impacts are huge enough to cause the victims long-term damages in the form of psychological disorders or physical illnesses.
Many laws in the United States are drawn to deal with stalking incidents. These laws do not differentiate between stalking incidents online and those offline. Rather, the actual conduct is considered to determine how to categorize the offense and the charges against the perpetrator. The United States Code, Title 18, Section 2261A is the main federal statute dealing with stalking and cyberstalking incidents in the country… Previously, there were some difficulties in prosecuting offenders of stalking and cyberstalking under this law due to jurisdictional barriers until the statute was amended in 2013. The circumstances surrounding any stalking or cyberstalking incidents usually determine the particular section or subsection of this law to be applied by prosecutors in dealing with the perpetrator.
Overall, the United States laws on cyberstalking seem adequate for addressing the offenses constituting cyberstalking. Unfortunately, cyberstalking still claims many victims, as indicated by the statistics produced by researchers on this issue. In light of the increasing victimization, it is recommended that the authorities do more to reduce the victimization rate, which will also save the victims from the numerous impacts of this offense. The government can do this in the form of creating awareness to members of the public that cyberstalking is a special offense that has damaging impacts on its victims. The government should also let the members of the public know that the offenders of this particular crime are often prosecuted and imprisoned when convicted. With this information in the hands of the public members, cybercrime incidents are likely to reduce due to the fear of legal punishment.
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