"Cyberstalking" is the use of electronic means to accomplish unwanted contact.
"Stalking" is the unwanted and continuous pursuit of a person or group that would place a reasonable person in a position of fear.
The unwanted pursuit, which may take the form of direct or indirect contact, is intentional and sustained over a period of time.
The contact may be unwanted because it is intrusive, annoying, intimidating, threatening or otherwise harmful to the victim.
The contact may even be seemingly innocent or even positive to the outside world. For example, perpetrators may send gifts to a victim or compliment their photos on their profiles, which are unwanted by the victim.
Whether an individual is stalking in person or “cyberstalking,” these acts may cross over between the two mediums. A person may be stalked either in the traditional sense, in the online world, or a combination of both.
The United States Federal Code has a specific law criminalizing cyberstalking, found in the Anti-Cyber-Stalking Law, 47 U.S.C. § 223. This law contains the following elements:
As you can see, federal law only applies to interstate or foreign communications which violate cyberstalking laws. In order to meet these requirements, the communication must be transmitted over state lines or involve a foreign country. If, for example, a person in the same state communicates with a person in the same state in a cyberstalking manner, the federal law will not apply.
The second important element under the federal anti-cyber-stalking law is that the communication must be knowingly made towards the victim. This element requires an intentional aspect of the conduct of the violator.
For example, if a person sends an email to another and through a computer error, that email is sent multiple times on a continuous basis, causing an annoyance to the receiver, it has not met the requirement that the communication was made knowingly and intentionally.
However, if the sender of the email purposely sets up the email to send on a continuous basis, with the intent to harass or annoy the receiver with unwanted emails, that person has met these elements of the statute.
Along with the federal laws protecting victims of cyberstalking, individual states also may have laws which provide certain protections. Unfortunately, there is no uniformity amongst the states in regards to cyberstalking protections.
Several states have specific anti-cyber stalking laws, including:
Other states have incorporated telecommunication contact into their traditional statutes of either criminal harassment or anti-stalking laws. These states include:
Among these states, the rules vary greatly, with some states only providing protections for:
Further complicating the state laws is the jurisdictional issues of location of the offense. Many times, online cyberstalking may occur from outside the state, or from multiple states and be directed at a victim in more than one location.
In order to understand what federal or state law could protect you as a victim of cyberstalking, it is important to gather as many facts as you can and consult with an attorney with experience in cybercrimes.
New York State codifies aggravated harassment under Section 240.30 of the State Penal Code. Under this law, “Aggravated Harassment” in the Second Degree occurs when:
This law is very similar to the federal law against cyberstalking, requiring an intentional act of the offender and communications causing annoyance or alarm by the victim.
Typically, this offense is paired with the more traditional law against stalking, which does not have to occur using electronic means.
New York Penal Code Section 120.45 establishes the law against stalking in the Fourth Degree.
This law criminalizes an act where the offender has no legitimate purpose to engage in a course of conduct against a specific person and knows or should know such conduct will cause a fear of harm to the physical, mental, or emotional health of the victim.
Other variations of this law increase the severity of the penalties if the stalking results in bodily harm or other more severe consequences. Using these types of statutes, prosecutors in the state of New York have many tools in protecting the victims of cyberstalking.
With these broad elements, many forms of contact may fall under this law.
False accusations are one common form of cyberstalking. In these situations, false information about a person may be posted online or directed towards a victim.
The information may also be directed towards a victim’s family or employer. For example, cyberstalking may involve a perpetrator posting false accusations of infidelity to a victim’s partner. The postings may be persistent and come from multiple identities across various platforms. Obviously, victims may be harmed from such communication with family or employers, who may not know what information is true and what information is false.
Information gathering is another form of cyberstalking for which may victimize people over electronic communication.
This may involve:
While gathering the information may not be criminal cyberstalking in itself, the methods to obtain such information may be in a manner of unwanted communication. In addition, these acts may also transpire into the illegal receipt of private information or invasion of privacy.
Fraudulent ordering of services or false emergencies is another common form of cyberstalking. Recently, the calling of emergency services with false reports of criminal activities has gained national attention, sometimes resulting in dangerous situations for victims.
These actions, commonly referred to as “SWATTING,” often involve calling a police department in the victim’s location and reporting a violent crime taking place where they are located. This can result in a swift police response, often to the confusion of the victim and police alike.
Victims of cyberstalking may also have their identity used in the purchasing of goods and services online, sometimes including embarrassing items that are delivered to their homes or workplaces, with the intent to embarrass or intimidate them.
Victims of cyberstalking are provided some protections across state and federal laws that cover certain acts. Punishment for these illegal acts vary greatly depending on the facts of the case and type of charges brought against a perpetrator.
Chapter 18 of the United States Code, section 875(c), provides that the federal government can sentence a guilty party of cyberstalking to up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
These penalties may apply when the cyberstalking contains direct threats of violence against the victim.
Chapter 47 of the United States Code, section 223 allows for up to two years in prison for cyberstalking crimes that involve abuse, harassment, or annoyance.
This statute requires that the perpetrator directly contacts the victim. Indirect contact with family, employers, or others does not fit this federal code.
The Internet Stalking Act of 1996, under chapter 18 of the United States Code section 2261(A), covers situations where cyberstalking has progressed to the perpetrator physically crossing state lines with the intent to cause fear or harm to the victim.
These types of events are usually much more serious, as the cyberstalker has advanced to physically relocating to be near the victim. The penalties for this statute covers a wide range of events.
If the cyberstalking results in the death of the victim, the offender may be punished with life in prison. (On top of any homicide charges).
If the victim suffers permanent disfigurement or life-threatening injuries, the offender may be sentenced to 20 years in prison.
If the offender uses a dangerous weapon during the cyberstalking, he may face up to 20 years in prison.
Any other case may result in a prison sentence of up to 5 years. Interestingly, the statute also requires a minimum of 1 year in prison if the cyberstalking is in violation of a restraining order.
Legally, a victim of cyberstalking may also have civil protections against their victimizers.
While law enforcement is responsible for prosecuting criminal offenses of cyberstalking, victims may also apply for protection orders.
“Protection Orders” are court orders, issued by a civil judge, that require an individual to stop certain harmful conduct and to stop contacting the victim.
Typically, a temporary order is first put in place by a judge with a brief review of the facts. As the name suggests, these orders have a certain time limit and then expire.
A full or final protection order may be sought afterward, requiring the perpetrator to stop the harmful conduct until such order is lifted. These orders, typically issued by state-level judges, can institute more penalties if they are not followed by the person they are filed against.
Although not common, there have been successful lawsuits of victims of cyberstalking. While these cases are rare, an experienced attorney can help you to determine if you have a viable case for monetary damages against a cyberstalker.
The Southern District of Florida, Federal Criminal Court, 2017, dealt with the case United States v. Kassandra Cruz, a cyberstalking case charged under federal law.
In this matter, Kassandra Cruz was charged with Chapter 18, USC Section 2261. Kassandra was accused of friending her victim (referred in court documents only as S.B.), with a fake profile of a man named “Giovani.”
Using the false identity of “Giovani,” Kassandra liked and commented on multiple social media postings of S.B. Eventually, S.B. blocked the Giovani profile.
Kassandra next reached out to S.B. and threatened to expose S.B.’s past - a reference to S.B.’s participation in pornography 15 years prior. Ultimately, Kassandra demanded $100,000 from S.B. as blackmail, in order to not expose her past to family and friends.
Kassandra sent over 900 calls and texts for approximately 4 months. S.B. went to the FBI, which investigated the communication, eventually tracing it back to Kassandra in Florida. Using the messages saved by S.B., wiretaps, and social media information, the FBI brought cyberstalking, extortion, and misuses of interstate communication charges against Kassandra.
Kassandra was sentenced to 22 months in prison and ordered to pay $2,178.32 in restitution to the victim.
Another case involving cyberstalking was the United States v. Ryan S. Lin heard in the United States Court District of Massachusetts.
This case resulted in a 17-year prison sentence to Mr. Lin, based on his guilty plea of seven counts of cyberstalking, five counts of distribution of child pornography, nine counts of hoax bomb threats, three counts of computer fraud and one count of identity theft.
All of these offenses stemmed from Mr. Lin victimizes his former roommate and her family by hacking her online accounts, stealing private photographs and private diary entries, and sending that information to friends and family.
On top of these acts, Mr. Lin also called in false bomb threats and other hoaxes aimed at best annoying the victim but at worst putting her in danger.
In addition to victimizing his former roommate, he also sent unsolicited photographs of child pornography to friends and family of the roommate.
This case shows some of the most egregious uses of the internet to cyberstalk and harass victims, resulting in the severe multi-year prison sentence.
If you or someone you know is a victim of cyberstalking or has suffered due to past cyberstalking events, it is important that you protect yourself and your loved ones from those that would do you harm.
As you can see from the above examples, cyberstalking may not just be a minor annoyance or inconvenience; it can very easily escalate into a very serious situation. An experienced professional with a strong knowledge of the various web of cyberstalking laws should be consulted with in order to ensure you are protected.
An attorney who has previously handled these complicated matters can help you make important decisions that could protect you from embarrassment or, worst yet, violence against you or your family.
Our law office has provided consultations and representations for many individuals in your same position. We strive to utilize every protection available under the law, including aiding in criminal prosecutions and civil filings to protect our clients rights and safety.
If you are a victim of cyberstalking, we are available to discuss your situation and protect those rights. Contact our office today to schedule an appointment immediately.
Social media is often at the center of cyberstalking and the information found on these websites may provide cyberstalkers with the critical information they need to carry out their stalking. When the contact becomes unwanted and continuous, it may meet the requirements to be considered cyberstalking.
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