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Cyberstalking: Lurking in the Shadows of Technology; As the High Country Changes, Its Crimes Evolve

Editor’s note: Last week, the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research collaborated for the first time with the National Stalking Helpline to present the launch of National Stalking Awareness Day on April 18.

Featured below, details of the local cyberstalking case have been changed to protect the identity of the victim and her family. 

By Jesse Wood

April 28, 2012. A couple weeks ago, three cyberstalking cases were on the Watauga Superior Court docket during one day, and in the most recent weekly arrest report from the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office another cyberstalking incident occurred.

Dee Dee Rominger, captain of investigations, said the Watauga Sheriff’s Office served four warrants for cyberstalking last year and has served three so far in 2012, and Boone Police Department Detective Matt Stevens said he couldn’t remember offhand the last time the police department encountered a cyberstalking case. Though, this doesn’t tell the complete story.

Rominger said the charge, which is a misdemeanor, hasn’t been updated on the offense code list from the SBI because it is a relatively new charge, which was defined in the N.C. General Statutes about five years ago (see complete definition below). While some officers freehand cyberstalking in arrest reports, other officers lump cyberstalking in with “all other offenses,” which doesn’t include serious violent crimes such as arson, murder, forcible rape and armed robbery.

“Therefore, I can’t give you an accurate figure … However, that number is not very high,” Rominger said, adding that there hasn’t been a “huge increase” or a “big influx” of these cases over the years.

Comments from Stevens regarding the lumping and coding of the offense were in line with those made by Rominger. However, Stevens added that many cyberstalking cases may go unreported like other crimes such as car break-ins, rapes and assaults.

“With cyberstalking, people could not know they have recourse or don’t know it’s necessarily something that’s criminal. Either [victims] feel like its something they have to put up with or they feel like it’s not a big deal,” Stevens said. “When, of course, it could be very serious when real communication, real threats are made …They could come to us. Maybe people don’t know that.”

‘One More Tool to Harass’

Rebecca Gummere, associate director with OASIS (Opposing Abuse with Support, Information and Shelter), said that the issue of cyberstalking is a part of the organization’s safety planning with survivors of domestic violence, adding that anyone with a cell phone or computer has experienced digital harassment.

“Abusers are taking advantage of the new technology to continue to exercise power and control over domestic violence survivors,” Gummere said. “As it becomes [more] available, it’s just one more tool to harass. We take it very seriously because we think it’s a part of a pattern of controlling behavior.”

Though the cases that Capt. Rominger cited didn’t escalate beyond “electronic means,” Gummere said OASIS takes all cyberstalking cases seriously from the beginning because domestic violence involves “more than physical” assaults.

“We believe it all stems back to power and control. We hesitate to say only physical [when defining domestic violence] because there is some extremely controlling behavior and quite honestly frightening behavior that isn’t physical,” Gummere said. “Power and control increases over time and escalates. We take any cyberstalking seriously because we don’t’ know how to project what an abuser will or won’t do.”

‘I’m Scared’

In the past four years since ending the relationship, Judy* has filed four complaints to local authorities regarding her ex, whom has been arrested multiple times for physical abuse and multiple times for cyberstalking via Facebook and text messages.

 “I actually blocked him from my Facebook, and everytime I change my number, he somehow gets it, and I’ve changed my number several times,” she said.

She added that she lived with him for five years before he turned into a different person and “did a complete 360-turnaround.” Now, she is married to another person, but the problems haven’t stopped.

“I don’t think it will ever stop,” Judy said. “I’m married now. It’s inappropriate. I don’t know how to explain it, but it doesn’t make me feel good at all.”

Three hours after the most recent arrest, the perpetrator texted Judy exclaiming that he was no longer in custody. She said she feels like law enforcement isn’t doing enough to protect her. 

“I’m scared of him because there has been physical abuse in the past. He has a really bad alcohol problem … and that’s when it gets bad,” Judy said.

‘Sign of the Times’

Years ago before cell phones, emails and the rise of social media, harassment from landline phones was a constant issue dealt with by law enforcement agencies. Not anymore.

“It used to be your phone number was unpublished. People couldn’t get your phone number,” Watuaga County Magistrate David Gales said. “Now everyone has text, an email address, a tweet or something like that. As far as reaching out and touching someone, it’s not that hard for anyone anymore. Crimes are evolving just as technology has evolved.”

He has worked as the magistrate for 19 years, and he said that harassment issues haven’t substantially increased anymore than any other crimes have in the High Country over the years.

“I’d say it’s proportional to as many people who communicate with Joe Blow on Facebook. It’s a sign of the times. Someone else reads somebody’s wall or blog, and it becomes public knowledge and goes from there,” Gales said. “People are still mad about the same things, but the way we communicate is just a little different.”

For more information on how to protect yourself from cyberstalking, click here: http://www.nssadvice.org/fact-sheets/cyberstalking/what-to-do-if-you-are-being-harassed-or-stalked-online.html

For more information about OASIS, click to http://oasisinc.org. To contact them, call their office at 828-264-1532 or the 24-hour crisis line at 828-262-5035.

Definition of Cyberstalking in the N.C. General Statutes

NCGS: § 14‑196.3.  Cyberstalking.

(a)        The following definitions apply in this section:

(1)        Electronic communication. – Any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature, transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, computer, electromagnetic, photoelectric, or photo‑optical system.

(2)        Electronic mail. – The transmission of information or communication by the use of the Internet, a computer, a facsimile machine, a pager, a cellular telephone, a video recorder, or other electronic means sent to a person identified by a unique address or address number and received by that person.

(b)        It is unlawful for a person to:

(1)        Use in electronic mail or electronic communication any words or language threatening to inflict bodily harm to any person or to that person’s child, sibling, spouse, or dependent, or physical injury to the property of any person, or for the purpose of extorting money or other things of value from any person.

(2)        Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another repeatedly, whether or not conversation ensues, for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing, or embarrassing any person.

(3)        Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another and to knowingly make any false statement concerning death, injury, illness, disfigurement, indecent conduct, or criminal conduct of the person electronically mailed or of any member of the person’s family or household with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass, or embarrass.

(4)        Knowingly permit an electronic communication device under the person’s control to be used for any purpose prohibited by this section.

(c)        Any offense under this section committed by the use of electronic mail or electronic communication may be deemed to have been committed where the electronic mail or electronic communication was originally sent, originally received in this State, or first viewed by any person in this State.

(d)       Any person violating the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.

(e)        This section does not apply to any peaceable, nonviolent, or nonthreatening activity intended to express political views or to provide lawful information to others. This section shall not be construed to impair any constitutionally protected activity, including speech, protest, or assembly. (2000‑125, s. 1; 2000‑140, s. 91.)