As stalkers go online, new state laws try to catch up

One of the first trials for 'cyberstalking' in the US opens in Illinois this week.

Angela Moubray used to love her hobby of chatting about wrestling and soap operas with others in an Internet chat room at night. Then, one day, a regular participant sent her a menacing e-mail. And then another. Soon, she says, he barraged her with a stream of threats such as "I hope you get raped."

Over nearly two years, the Virginia resident received unrelenting messages from a person whom she had never met, culminating in the missive: "I will kill you Ang, I mean it."

Angela Moubray is one of a growing number of people who have become a victim of an emerging new crime – cyberstalking. Upwards of 100 new cases are reported each week of someone using the Internet to intimidate another person.

"Probably two-thirds of the cases involve revenge; someone loses an argument or is turned down romantically," says Colin Hatcher, president of SafetyEd, one of a handful of private groups that help victims of Internet stalking.

Despite the prevalence of such incidents, arrests are rare. This week, however, one of the first cases of cyberstalking in the US will be played out in a suburban Chicago courtroom. The trial offers a window into how difficult such cases are to prosecute, but also signals that authorities are beginning to take the crime seriously.

All but six states have cyberstalking statutes on the books, but the Illinois case is "one of very few arrests I've heard of," says Jayne Hitchcock, president of Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA).

Legislators and policemen acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, but more pressing offenses often force them to overlook a crime that can be time-consuming to prosecute. Not to mention difficult. The global nature of the Internet means that the culprit could live in another state or country, and is unlikely to be extradited for what's usually a misdemeanor.

the Illinois case is the state's first arrest for cyberstalking since a statute was passed a year ago. Profirios Liapis scheduled to go on trial this week for allegedly e-mailing death threats to another man. Police say that Mr. Liapis – who could face three years in prison if convicted – is a former boyfriend of the victim's ex-wife. He is accused of sending threatening e-mails under the pseudonym of "MYSALLY17" to the victim at his workplace. Liapis also allegedly mailed the victim photos of his house and car to prove he was watching him.

In many instances, those who are threatened by e-mail have little idea whether their Internet stalker will make good on a threat.

In Ms. Moubray's case, the warnings she received terrorized her so much that she had to take safety into her own hands. "I started carrying pepper spray, and I wouldn't go anywhere alone. My Dad bought me a gun," she says.

More often than not, police don't want to get involved in cases of Internet harassment until a physical crime occurs. Most cyberstalking laws, however, allow for prosecution if someone receives repeated e-mails threatening violence.

Even so, "the majority of police departments, district attorneys, and attorneys do not understand this, and the laws do not really protect you from this type of problem," says Mr. Hatcher.

Today, educating Internet users and lawmakers is the primary focus of groups like SafetyEd, WHOA and WiredPatrol. Each site has advice such as recommending use of a free e-mail account in chat rooms and a private address for friends.

Stalkers often stop once police or private agencies come to them with evidence that ties them to the threatening messages. In Moubray's case, the perpetrator lived in another state, so WHOA linked her up with a policeman in the stalker's hometown. One visit ended the Internet stalking.

"People can be very cool while they sit at their computer. Traditional stalkers have to be very angry to get close and threaten the victim, since there's a chance they will get punched in the nose," said Susan Catherine Herring, a fellow at Indiana University's Center for research on Learning & Technology.

Antistalking activists also say that for every case they take to police, scores more fail to meet the legal definition of cyberstalking. "One woman I know is getting 20,000 e-mails per day that say 'I love you'.... but there's no threat, so it's not a crime," Hatcher says.

While many cyberstalkers fit the profile of loners with low-level jobs, the crime can be committed by anyone who lets an obsession take over part of his or her life. "You'd be surprised who does this; it's often doctors or lawyers," Hitchcock says. She adds that "only a handful" persist after being contacted by authorities.

For most victims, including Moubray, an end to the harassment is usually enough. "A big part of me is relieved; I will go places by myself now," she says. But, she adds, "I still carry my pepper spray."

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