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FAQ: The Law vs. Online Stalking

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse estimates that well over a million Americans have been stalked. Approximately 80% of stalking cases concern women being stalked by ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands. In a book entitled Stalked: Breaking the Silence on the Crime of Stalking in America, the authors, Melita Schaum and Karen Parrish, estimate 200,000 Americans are currently being stalked. The authors assert 20% of all American women will eventually be subjects of a stalker.

1. What State Laws Exist To Protect Stalking Victims? All states have now enacted some form of cyberstalking or cyberharassment law. California enacted the first anti-stalking statute in 1990, primarily in response to the public outcry over the stalking and subsequent murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress appearing on the television sitcom, My Sister Sam. Many states have both criminal and civil anti-stalking laws. Some online stalking statutes include Alaska's anti-stalking law, AS 11.41.260, California's anti-stalking law Penal Code Section 646.9, and Family Code Section 6320, Indiana's cyberharassment law, and West Virginia's anti-stalking law. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists other various state statutes regarding stalking and victim's rights. Canada has a comprehensive anti-stalking law, enacted in 1993.

2. What Federal Laws Exist To Protect Stalking Victims? 42 U.S.C. Section 3796 and 42 U.S.C. Section 14031 authorize grants for law enforcement agencies to develop programs to reduce stalking and for states to develop local, state, and national databases regarding stalking. 42 U.S.C. Section 14036 requires judges to ensure they review the stalker's criminal history prior to issuance of a civil court orders in stalking cases. The Drivers' Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. Chapter 123, Sections 2721 - 2725, effective September 13, 1997, prevents state motor vehicle departments from releasing personal information about any individual unless that department has permitted the individual an opportunity to opt out of disclosure. Finally, 42 U.S.C. Section 14038 requires the United States Attorney General to compile information about stalking as part of the National Incident-Based Reporting System. Legislation to prohibit stalking via electronic mail has been introduced in Congress.

3. What Evidence Must A Victim Put Forth To Prove Stalking? If you are a victim of stalking, check your state's statute. Many states' anti-stalking criminal codes provide that someone is a stalker if he willfully and repeatedly follows, communicates, or harasses another and/or makes a credible threat to place the victim or the victim's immediate family in fear for their safety. In many states, the behavior must be "repeated," meaning it has to happen more than once either to constitute criminal harassment or behavior which the civil courts can address. Many states provide, however, that if the stalking is prowling a place where you live, work, or visit, then one stalking instance may be sufficient to commence criminal or civil proceedings. In some states, like California, you need not prove your stalker had the intent to carry out his threat. In Canada, you need not prove your stalker meant to scare you, only that you were scared. You do, however, need to prove your fear is reasonable.

4. How Do I Get A Restraining Order? You can usually obtain a restraining order from your local civil court. These orders, which may be temporary or permanent, generally require your stalker to stay a certain distance from you and to cease communication with you. If your stalker violates the civil court's order, he can be held in contempt of court and he may be fined and/or imprisoned. Civil courts are only recently becoming sensitive to the need for restraining orders in stalking situations. It is at the judge's discretion whether to grant or deny your request for a restraining order. The drawbacks of a restraining order are that they are usually limited to the court's jurisdiction, they are enforced only upon violation, and they cost money, time, and counsel to obtain. You may be required to post a bond for their restraining order. This amount will be returned if you are successful at the conclusion of a civil suit against the stalker.

5. What If I Only Know The Stalker's Email? Having only an email address may be enough to stop the sender. In some cases, parties have obtained a temporary restraining orders against individuals who have posted harassing messages and sent stalking-type emails both about and to individuals and family members.

In one case, the court order was sent to Kevin Massey via email and posted to the Usenet newsgroups to which he had originally posted the allegedly harassing messages. The restraining order commanded Massey to desist and refrain from transmitting via the Internet untrue factual allegations about criminal conduct at Internet America, about Internet America's customer relations, about indecent conduct by the Maynards, about Teresa Maynard, about threatening the Maynards or Internet America's employees with bodily harm, and from coming within 500 yards of the Maynards. The restraining order has since expired, but the Maynards and Internet America are pursuing civil claims and damages against Massey for invasion of privacy, harassment, and intentional interference with Internet America's contractual relations.

6. What Is The Punishment For Stalking? Each state's criminal and civil codes differ. In California, the criminal penalty for stalking is imprisonment for up to a year and/or a fine of up to $500, unless the stalker pursued you in violation of a previous court order, then the punishment may be two to four years imprisonment. In Canada, stalkers may be imprisoned for up to five years. Since stalking isn't high on the list of your local criminal court's activities, you can also pursue civil remedies and ask a civil court to issue a restraining order against your stalker. In California, you may request to be notified 15 days before your stalker is released from prison. In addition, California state laws prohibit those convicted of stalking from owning and/or buying guns.

7. What Can You Do To Prevent Stalking? There are many stalking prevention tips various victim's rights organizations support. Some are simple, some are extreme. Here's a list of tips many groups support:

  • Use a private post office box. The United States Postal Service will release your home address to any governmental agency or person serving court papers. Private companies, such as Mail Boxes Etc., usually have stricter guidelines regarding releasing the addresses of its box holders.
  • Print your box office address on your checks. Don't include your home address or telephone number on your checks.
  • Get an unlisted and unpublished telephone number. Some suggest you ask your friends and colleagues to remove your private phone number from their rolodexes and databases, from which it's susceptible to theft.
  • Get Caller ID Blocking.
  • Use *69. This service from your local telephone service provider permits you to call back someone who hangs up on you. Record the number or tape the conversation.
  • Have someone else record your answering machine message. Many services recommend an unrecognizable male voice if you're a female.
  • Save all recorded messages from your stalker.
  • Save a copy of all stalking evidence in a safe deposit box or with a friend since stalkers have been known to enter and rifle through victim's homes.
  • Avoid calling 800 and 900 numbers from your home telephone number. These services cannot be stopped with Caller ID Blocking from displaying the telephone number from which you are calling.


8. What Can You Do To Prevent CyberStalking? The Internet can make information available to over 2 trillion users worldwide with the simple stroke of the Enter key. Many safety experts suggest these steps to preserve your privacy while online:

  • Create a nonsensical password combining numbers and letters. Change your password frequently.
  • Never leave your computer logged in unattended.
  • Request the privacy policy of your commercial or online service provider. Shop around for one which has a policy which protects your privacy. Many service provider agreements permit email to be monitored.
  • Most commercial email providers now offer some form of email encryption. You can also use use an encryption method such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). You should also limit the personal information you release online.
  • Be careful posting to Usenet newsgroups, news comments, blogs, and other social networks. Many proprietors of online White Pages obtain their personal information about you from archives of Usenet and other social media postings.
  • Consider using an anonymous remailer.
  • Don't create an online biography which is available for other users to search and view.
  • Create an ambiguous online ID, especially if you're a woman.
  • If your child is using commercial or online service providers, various parental control programs can prevent your child from releasing your home address, telephone number, or credit card number in an email or online posting.
  • If you have your own domain name, create multiple mailboxes and only give out your main mailbox address to friends and colleagues.
  • Save all email messages which you consider harassing both in digital and hard copy form. Contact your service provider concerning such messages.


9. For More Information: There are many resources for stalking victims. Here are a few: The National Organization for Victim Assistance, National Center for Victims of Crime, and Stalking Victims Sanctuary.

10. Questions? If you have any questions or comments about this FAQ, send them to me.

Courtesy of Marie D'Amico of NetGuide Magazine.

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