Thursday 23 May 2019

Cyberstalkers: Living with fear every minute of the day

Caitriona Palmer talks to victims of online harassment and abuse

Hitchcock was a victim
of online intimidation
and has set up an
organisation to warn
young people about
online threats
Jayne Hitchcock was a victim of online intimidation and has set up an organisation to warn young people about online threats

Caitriona Palmer

The emails sent to Alexis Bowater were violent and sexual in nature, and would appear out of the blue.

For two years the former ITV newsreader was relentlessly stalked online by a man who said that he hoped Bowater's unborn child would die and that she would be found hanging. He threatened to blow up the journalist while she was on air, and made menacing references to rape.

"He said that he knew where I lived and that he was watching me and told me to be very afraid," she told the Irish Independent.

Terrified for her life, Bowater (41) sought help from the police, who installed a panic alarm in her house. But despite these efforts -- and increased security from ITV -- Bowater could never quite shake off the feeling that she was being followed.

As the power and influence of the internet has grown, so too has the phenomenon of cyberstalking: a virulent -- and at times, deadly -- scourge of the online world.

In Ireland, an increasing number of women are being harassed online, through email or on social-networking sites like Bebo or Facebook according to Women's Aid, a leading national organisation to help domestic-abuse victims.

"You know that attack is imminent, and inevitable -- but you don't know when, or where, or in the case of cyberstalking, by whom," said Bowater, who is now chief executive of the UK-based Network for Surviving Stalking (NSS). "You live with that every minute of every hour of every day and every sleepless night.

"Some psychologists say that cyberstalking exacerbates that position because you don't know who your potential attacker is -- which means that from a victim's perspective they could be anyone at all, where you are -- so the victims is quite literally surrounded by their stalker and no place is safe. It is utterly terrifying."

Experts say that cyber-stalking can take many forms: excessive harassment via email, or a deliberate attempt by the stalker to destroy the victim's reputation by posting false or damaging information about them.

"Sometimes the stalker is just obsessed with the other person -- whether or not they had a previous relationship with them," said Jayne Hitchcock, president of the US-based Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) and a former cyberstalking victim.

"Other times, we have people who purposely go on groups, chat rooms or message boards and deliberately start writing terrible things. They try to get other people up in arms, and then they escalate it from there."

In 1997 Hitchcock's email account was suddenly bombarded with hundreds of emails -- a phenomenon known as "email bombing" which attempts to shut down a person's email account.

Hitchcock soon realised that she was also being impersonated online: "They posted as me on a bunch of sexual and controversial groups, saying that I was into sado-masochistic sex, that I was looking for participants for my next book and to stop by or call me anytime of the night," she told the Irish Independent.

"They listed my home address and my home phone number," she said.

An investigation revealed that the cyberstalkers were a husband-and-wife team linked to a fictitious writer's agency who held a grudge against Hitchcock for her attempts to reveal their scam.

Terrified for her safety, Hitchcock changed her telephone number. But her stalkers persisted. Using the internet they identified her neighbours and began to trawl through the phone book. "They actually called our neighbours to see if anyone knew our new phone number," she said.

With little or no legal recourse to help her -- there were no laws governing internet harassment at the time -- Hitchcock threw her energy into encouraging US state and federal authorities to enact laws to help cyberstalking victims.

"Maryland became the first state in the country to pass an email harassment law because of my situation," she said.

In 2001 the authorities arrested Hitchcock's cyberstalkers and in 2003 the husband was sent to jail. But the experience left Hitchcock shaken and feeling "paranoid beyond belief".

Because cyberstalking occurs over the internet and the victim rarely has face-to-face contact with the harasser, many assume that the psychological effects cannot be as damaging as 'physical' stalking, said Hitchcock.

But the effects on a cyber-stalking victim can be just as terrifying -- and sometimes even deadly.

"When you start living in fear, wondering if they are going to show up on our doorstep in addition to the online stuff, it's pretty frightening," she said. "There are some victims who I have worked with who have said that they've considered killing themselves, and you have to talk them down because they just feel that some people don't take it seriously."

Hitchcock now runs an organisation devoted to helping victims of online stalking and bullying, touring the country visiting schools to warn youngsters of the threats lurking on the internet.

Her group receives on average 75 emails a week from people all over the world who are being harassed online.

With the increased popularity of social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Hitchcock believes that cyberstalkers have an entire new arena in which to pursue their victims -- particularly those under 18.

'You're seeing a lot more abuse [on social-networking sites]," said Jayne Hitchcock. "Somebody will become so angry at somebody else that they'll start creating false profiles to harass the other person. Or they'll create a profile in the victim's name."

In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself in her bedroom in Missouri after being spurned by her new MySpace friend "Josh".

After Megan's death it turned out that "Josh" was a fake character created by Lori Drew, the mother of a friend of Megan, who had lured the teenager online to find out what Megan was saying about her daughter.

In January, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old from Co Clare, hanged herself in her home in South Hadley, Massachusetts, after she had been consistently bullied at school and online.

Since Phoebe's death -- and a rash of other cyberbullying suicides in the US in September -- Jayne Hitchcock has been "booked solid" by schools anxious for her to educate their students about the dangers of cyberstalking. Despite the school's efforts however, she still encounters young people who are too afraid to report online abuse.

"The kids are afraid to go to our site even though I keep saying: 'We will keep you anonymous'," she said. "There's still that fear that if they ask for help then the bully will find out and make their lives worse."

In April 2009, 25-year-old Alexander Reeve from South East Cornwall was jailed for 48 months for cyberstalking Alexis Bowater and another journalist at ITV.

Bowater has not changed the way she uses the internet but the mother of two has now devoted her life to helping victims whose lives have been "stolen" by all methods of stalking -- including cyberstalking.

"Stalkers wrap their victims in a cloak of isolation, fear, darkness and desperation, making them think that there is no one out there to help them, that there is nowhere for them to turn.

"Their life, as they know it is over, their voice stolen -- until the stalker is stopped," she said.

"This crime affects millions of people all over the world," she said. "It destroys lives. It is unacceptable. It has to be stopped."

Irish Independent

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