High-Tech Stalking

GPS devices, IP sniffers and even identity theft are used to harass victims. How do investigators get evidence to build a case?

     When they hear the term "stalking," many people think of an obsessed fan standing for days outside his or her favorite star's house. But stalking affects a variety of people in many life situations — and in recent years, has gone high-tech. Disgruntled employees pose as their bosses to post explicit messages on social network sites; spouses use GPS to track their mates' every move. Even police and prosecutors find themselves at risk, as gang members and other organized criminals find out where they live — often to intimidate them into dropping a case.

Federal stalking statistics

     In January, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released the largest-ever study of its kind on stalking, "Stalking Victimization in the United States," an Office on Violence Against Women (OVW)-sponsored report based on supplemental data gathered from the National Crime Victimization Survey.

     The report showed that technology, including Internet-based services like e-mail and instant messaging along with other technology such as GPS and computer spyware, have been used to harass one in four stalking victims. That translates into about 1.2 million victims whose stalkers used some form of technology to find them.

     However, law enforcement remains under-equipped to deal with stalking. When it comes to technology use in the crime, the problem worsens. There are many reasons for this, but the end result, as revealed in the survey, is that victims have mixed feelings about police response to their problem.

Mixed police response

     Stalking has always been difficult for law enforcement to deal with. For one thing, says Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center at the National Crime Victims Center, stalking is a relatively young crime; the first anti-stalking law was enacted in California in 1990. "The behavior may be as old as society, but the crime itself is less than two decades old," she explains.

     While all 50 states have passed anti-stalking laws, only 14 of them specifically address high-tech stalking. The laws overall are inconsistent with how they address the crime. Some require the victim to feel in fear of his or her life, while others allow that any "reasonable person" would feel threatened.

     In addition, stalking is unique in that it involves a pattern of generally noncriminal behavior rather than a single incident. Officers may believe they are taking a report on a single incident, therefore, may believe it's a waste of time. And training them otherwise is unusual. "Many departments have no specific training, no specialized units that deal with it," says Garcia. "When officers do encounter stalking, they are often uncertain about how to respond because they haven't been trained for it." Academy training, she points out, may provide recruits with a 4-, 6-, or 8-hour education on crimes against women. "Stalking may be just one small piece within the larger topic of domestic violence and sexual assault," Garcia adds.

     Information sharing — or lack thereof — among agencies can be another part of the problem. "Many state laws require two or more acts against a victim to qualify as stalking," says Garcia. "But a victim may work in one town and live in another. If she receives dead roses at work and multiple phone calls at home, and reports each event to each police department, neither one will have enough for a crime if they aren't working together."

     The high-tech element can present an extra wrinkle. "Some agencies are well trained on stalking and domestic violence, but they have no specialized computer forensic unit or investigator. Others have high-tech crimes units, but little experience with stalking," says Garcia.

     Stalking, with or without technology, can be such a complex crime that many police officers, detectives, prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system become frustrated. Sometimes this comes out as negative attitude toward victims. But Alexis Moore, founder and president of the national victim advocacy group Survivors In Action, believes this can be overcome. "Nothing is truly complex, but it can be if it's allowed to be," she says.

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