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Stalking is a criminal act that occurs when the offender repeatedly imposes unwanted disturbances and communications to victims by using premeditation to the extent of provoking fear for their safety (Pathe’ & Mullen, 1997). Oddly, at first these acts can be seen as kind towards the victim, from an observer’s point of view. For example, it does not appear to be threatening at all when someone leaves messages, sends gifts and shows up in places where the victim habitually hangs around (Purcell, Pathe’ & Mullen, 2004). However, if a person is trying to build-up a relationship that another person does not want to experience, (such as with a former partner, a famous person, or a professional) this results in intimidation and is considered as stalking (Regehr, n.d.).
Stalking varies from harassing and threatening victims by following and tracking them, appearing at their doorstep or workplace, collecting photos and or videos of the target, making unwanted phone calls, sending gifts, letters and e-mails, intercepting any mail, and vandalizing property. Unluckily in the worst of cases stalking includes the threatening of victim’s families and friends, physical assault, and the kidnapping and holding of hostages (Regehr, n.d.).
With the advances in technology and innovative equipment that fills our daily lives, crime is infiltrating into society by using cyberspace. The traditional stalker is now a cyber-stalker and essentially his/her grounds are limitless. In addition, the stalker now has no face because the comfort of using Information Technology enables the criminal to quietly stay indoors and carry-on with one’s crimes anonymously and at a low cost. Although cyber stalking still uses the harassment principles as in traditional stalking, their victims are now found online. The cyber stalker now uses emails, internet, and chat rooms as his/her hunting grounds (Thapa, & Kumar, 2011) and the growing social networks which many users subscribe to such as Facebook are the sources of feed which stalkers are looking for (Regehr, n.d.).
This ease of internet “tools” at disposal and the belief that cyber stalkers cannot be physically touched in cyberspace (Jaishankar & Sankary, 2006) has increased this crime. This is because the internet provides a vast choice of suitable targets, and a low chance of being caught or tracked down due to lack of guardianship online. Thus, the motivated offender is likely to engage in cyber stalking as the routine activity theory explains (Pitarro, 2011).
Bocjj (2002) defines cyber stalking as:
“A group of behaviours in which an individual, group of individuals or organisation, uses information and communications technology to harass another individual, group of individuals or organisation. Such behaviours may include, but are not limited to, the transmission of threats and false accusations, damage to data or equipment, identity theft, data theft, computer monitoring, the solicitation of minors for sexual purposes and any form of aggression.”
There are three subcategories of cyber stalking: e-mail stalking, internet stalking, and computer stalking. E-mail stalking is the act of repetitively sending hate, obscene, or threatening mail, or in other cases involves the sending of viruses and electronic junk mail. This results in an unwelcome and intimidating invasion into private space. Internet stalking on the other hand goes rather public, since it consists of using the web in-order to stalk. Computer stalking is the act of using the internet and other software in-order to obtain control of the victim’s computer. In this type of stalking, the stalker communicates directly as soon as the target computer uses the internet, forcing the victim to disconnect and/or reconnect through a new line if s/he wants to evade the harassment (Ogilvie, 2000).
The stalker may be on the other side of the earth, a neighbour, or even a relative. In addition, cyber stalkers are usually mature in age, have a good educational level, a stable job, and are usually Caucasian (Bocij & McFarlane, 2002). “Research literature also suggests that many cyber stalkers have a prior criminal record, a history of substance abuse, or a personality disorder that directly or partly contributes to, and increases the likelihood of, such antisocial behaviours” (Pitarro, 2011, in Hutton & Haantz, 2003; Reno, 1999). However, this does not mean that all cyber stalkers are like this, in fact the evidence is somewhat inconclusive.
Different stalkers, engage in stalking for various reasons like for sexual harassment. Another motive could be the obsession for love. This occurs when one of the partners in a love relation decides to end it, the other does not accept it and thus continues to harass the other partner. One of the main problems with obsessional stalking is that since many times the stalking comes after a real relationship, the stalker has at one’s disposal much of the information s/he needs about the victim. Revenge and hate is another major cause for stalking, and many times results after an argument that has gone out of hand. In this case, the stalker does not necessarily need to know the victim but could be just picking on him/her only to let out pent up stress. Finally, a stalker might just want to be able to show-off one’s skills for ego boost and show of power (“Cyber Crime in India,” 2000).
Types of stalkers include the rejected stalker, the intimacy seeker, the incompetent suitor, the resentful stalker, and the predatory stalker. Rejected stalkers are characterised by a mix of revenge and desire to reconcile with the victim who is usually a partner or a family member. Intimacy seekers on the other hand try to achieve a relationship with a person that can be a complete stranger and think s/he is reciprocating their affection. Incompetent suitors being socially incompetent try to build a relationship that goes against social courtship rules whilst predatory stalkers gather information in preparation for sexual attachment. Lastly, resentful stalkers specifically harass victims to cause fear and uneasiness as a form of revenge for a supposed humiliation (Mullen, Pathe, Purcell, & Stuart, 1999).
However, these are not the only types of stalkers. Other types include the delusional stalker, the erotomaniac stalker, the harasser, the love rat, and the trolls. Delusional stalkers many times suffer from a mental illness, usually schizophrenia or manic depression. These due to stoppage of medication may be unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and thus their victims are usually also in-danger of losing their sanity as a result of being taken into the stalker’s world. This might occur if the stalker knows how to play the part well and appears to be normal. Erotomaniac stalkers are also mentally ill and build up a relationship in their heads. Although not specifically considered as stalkers, harassers are attention-seekers and might victimise anyone who is kind enough to give them attention. Love rats usually come up with a fictitious identity and surf the cyberspace with the intent to start a relationship although having other secret affairs. Trolls like to invent senseless stories/events that are meant to waste the victims’ time, hurt their feelings, and play victims against each other (“Issues related to bullying”, 2002).
The victims of stalking are mainly picked because they might be inferior to the stalker, since many stalkers want to be in control (Regehr, n.d.). Victims are many times ex-partners of the stalker (especially if the stalker is a woman) although in cyber stalking 50% of the victims are complete strangers. The preferred victims of a cyber-stalker are women and children, who might be emotionally weak or unstable, but most of all those that are inexperienced with the rules of cyberspace (Thapa, & Kumar, 2011). Furthermore, studies show that 83% of stalking victims are females, this mainly is because there are more females online, and many stalkers might seek romance with them. Then if the female ends the relationship, the male stalker may be left with the thirst for revenge. The typical victim is therefore a Caucasian female of between 18 to 32 years. Being part of a minority group such as ethnic/racial minorities, homosexuals, and religious minorities may also cause one to be targeted (Thapa, & Kumar, 2011; McFarlane & Bocij, 2003).
Impacts on stalking victims can be physical, psychological, occupational, and social. It is important to note that although cyber stalking many times consists of the last three, escalation into offline stalking and face-to-face confrontation may cause physical injuries to occur. Victims constantly feel in danger of being attacked. This imposed fear is a result of the tactics that the stalker implements to harass his/her victim (Regehr, n.d.). Fear, anxiety, and apprehension nearing paranoia are the feelings which all victim share. Other victims show symptoms of anger, depression, and helplessness, which might lead to suicidal thoughts (McEwan, Mullen, & Purcell, 2007).
The victims become hyper vigilant to keep an eye out for the stalker and start to change their habitual routines. When easiness wears away and stress comes into play, the victim’s anxiety is heightened. S/he will start to be easily startled by minimum movements or noises. Both during the night and during the day, images of the stalker start to engulf the victim’s thoughts and dreams. The victim will eventually fall into self-reclusion by avoiding communication and by refraining from carrying out activities such as not answering calls or messages, and not venturing outside the house. Long-term stalking will result in further symptoms, this time physical. Sleep disturbances, nausea, upset stomachs, general fatigue, frequent headaches, and the aggravation of pre-existing conditions such as asthma may be also present (Regehr, n.d.).
Pathe’ and Mullen (1997) conducted a study on 100 stalking victims. Damages to property ranging from cars to houses were reported in 36 of the studied cases. In addition to this, 50% of the cases consisted of threats in direct harm to the victims, or their families or friends. However, the victims were assaulted by the stalker in one-third of the cases. Findings also indicated that over 50% of the victims start to drop their attendance records from work or school, some even cease to attend at all.
According to the National Violence Against Women Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice (1998), 30% of female and 20% of male victims end-up seeking psychological counselling due to the trauma suffered during victimization (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Socially, the victim’s status is affected negatively especially due to poor attendance, or focus at work. This will eventually cause family or friends to intervene and accompany the victim, at work or at home. With time, the other persons involved, will show symptoms of anger since they are not able to return to their normal lives. This will cause further uneasiness because the anger that should be projected towards the criminal justice systems for being better equipped to counteract this crime is taken on the victim him/herself for being in their current situation (Regehr, n.d.).
There are various safety strategies that one can adopt to avoid being stalked. Choosing gender and age ambiguous usernames, not posting personal information online, not sharing passwords, downloading antispyware programs, locking windows and doors, parking cars in illuminated areas, avoiding habitual travelling patterns, and having meetings with unknown persons in public areas, may all minimise the possibility of becoming a victim (Petrocelli, 2005). If these methods are ineffective, victims should always tell the stalker that the communication is undesirable, keep record of any emails, telephone calls, and letters received, contact law enforcement agencies or victim support groups, and change email addresses and telephone numbers (Jaishankar & Sankary, 2006). The most important advice is however to never confront the stalker as this will make matters worse.
Unfortunately, incidents of stalking and cyber stalking are underreported. This may be due to various reasons such as not being aware that the acts suffered are illegal, the fear of being blamed, fear that the stalker may turn to other family members and friends, threats by the stalker, and believing that nothing can be done (MacKenzie, McEwan, Pathé, James, Ogloff, & Mullen, 2011). In addition, according to Reno (1999), victims may not seek help because they feel either that certain behaviours suffered from stalking are not serious enough to be reported to law enforcement agencies, or they think that the police force will not take matters seriously.
Furthermore, sometimes law enforcement agencies perceive cyber stalking as relatively harmless unless it involves physical contact or threatening behaviour offline, and thus many times just tell victims to switch off computers or abandon computer use and dismiss the victim’s preoccupations as nuisance (Reno, 1999). Sometimes however, it is not the police agencies’ fault since unlike in stalking, the evidence in cyber stalking is many times not enough to trace the perpetrator. In addition, many websites do not authenticate user information, and a number of email servers offer stalkers the opportunity to remove identity data for a small fee, thus making it almost impossible for law enforcement to trace the accounts (Reno, 1999).
Nowadays, although many countries have set up law enforcement units to deal with cybercrime such as The Cybercrime Unit of the Malta Police Force, the laws still provide many limitations. Jurisdiction limitations make it difficult for law enforcement to investigate the crime if it involves suspects from other countries (Petrocelli, 2005). Another obstacle for the police force is that stalking in itself is not considered a crime under Maltese law and thus certain behaviour cannot be punished if it does not involve; threat, harassment, trespassing, vandalism, physical violence & contact, or computer misuse. In addition for an action to be considered a crime, two elements must be present: actus reus and mens rea. Therefore, prosecutors must prove that the culprit had the intent to cause harm. Except for cases when the stalking is done on an ex-partner, this is difficult to prove (Dennison & Thomson, 2002).
As the technology continues to develop, so will crime such as cyber stalking. Thus since the Internet is becoming more and more integrated into almost every part of human life, simple solutions such as turning off computers will not solve the problem. Instead, the frequent training of law enforcement agencies and the continuous updating of laws will prove to be better countermeasures to such newly developed crimes. Citizens must also learn to protect themselves from the dangers of such crimes by attending educational talks and seminars, cooperating with criminal justice agencies, or even using the computer itself to keep updated with new trends so as to avoid becoming victims of crime.
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