July 13, 2000 (abc.com) -

While the Internet has brought the world to the fingertips of millions, putting friends and resources just a click away, it also poses new threats to privacy and personal safety.

"It never occurred to me that the Internet could be used as a weapon," says Deborah Boehle, who claims her family had been harassed for two-and-a-half years by a man who sent out postings soliciting sex with her 9-year-old daughter.
The Boehles were awakened to the dangers of the Web by a phone call at 3 a.m. Though the man on the line asked to speak with their daughter by name, Deborah assumed it was a wrong number and mere coincidence. But when phone calls from men asking for the young girl persisted, followed by a hang-up when asked who was calling or why, Deborah and her husband, Mike, were alarmed.

A few weeks after the calls began, a neighbor complained to Mike about his daughter, who had written "hello" with sidewalk chalk on a neighbor's driveway. Having had other run-ins with this neighbor, Mike suspected this man could be behind the menacing phone calls. Thinking that the Web might be involved, Mike looked online for clues.

What he found were nasty messages claiming that his daughter was soliciting sex. Attached was the Boehle's home phone number. The subject line in one of the postings - "Hello on the driveway" - led Mike to the neighbor, who apparently was sending out the messages in the girl's name.

The Boehles turned to local police, who advised that the family to get a new phone number and keep their daughter inside. But Mike and Deborah moved to a new community and enlisted the help of a neighboring police department's Computer Crime Unit. They subpoenaed the neighbor's home telephone records: On every single date and time an Internet posting about the Boehle daughter was made, the neighbor's phone was connected to his Internet service provider.

Last July, the neighbor, Charles Gary Rogers, pled guilty to transmitting obscene material - a misdemeanor that cost him a $750 fine. But Deborah thinks this was a mild punishment. "Even though he never touched my daughter, which is what his lawyer kept saying, he literally led millions of pedophiles to her," she says.

The ability to reach the masses is, in part, what makes cyberstalking so insidious. Cynthia Armistead, a freelance computer software analyst, says she discovered this when she was contacted by hundreds of men who were responding to her supposed sex-wanted ads. Posted on the Internet, Armistead found, were pictures of nude women - with her photo and name attached.

"I started getting e-mail from men wanting to know exactly what kind of services I provided for the advertised rates," she says. "I was stunned."
Armistead thought she knew who had placed the ads - a man with whom she'd gotten into an online argument about Internet advertising. After reporting him to his Internet service provider, the cyberstalker found a way to continue his campaign while concealing his identity. By using an "anonymous remailer," a middleman that strips identification from e-mails before being sent on, the cyberstalker's messages could not be traced.
It got worse. Armistead's 5-year-old daughter, Katie, became the target of crude messages like, "You're a little whore just like your mother." And because of the anonymizing middleman, the return address on the e-mail was anonymousnobody@remailer.
When the intimidation turned to physical threats online, Armistead asked the police for help. "They said they could do nothing, they had no idea how to proceed," says Armistead. "They were like, 'Turn off your computer. Why are you on the Net if you're getting this nasty stuff. Get off the Net.'"

Armistead took matters into her own hands. She moved apartments and got a post-office box so no street address could be identified. Then, she got this message: "I know where you live, you ugly fat slut. I followed you home…Now we'll have some fun bitch."
Once the alleged cyberstalker left the online world and claimed to have physically followed Armistead home, prosecutors thought they might have a case. Finding that no laws specifically addressed online harassment, the accused cyberstalker was charged with traditional stalking. The judge found the man not guilty.
"Using a computer, someone can break into your house without even walking in the front door," says Deborah Boehle. "And they can send people into your life that can completely tear it apart."

If You Think You May Be a Victim

  • Don't respond directly to offenders. "If you reply to them," says Parry Aftab, executive director of Cyberangels, an Internet safety organization, "you give them the attention they want."
  • Notify local police. "This is especially important if you think you may be in physical danger," warns Detective Mike Sullivan of the Naperville County Police Department. "Although not all law enforcement agencies are fully equipped to handle these cases," he adds, "they can direct you to resources that are."
  • Contact the offender's Internet service provider. Almost all ISPs have terms of service that don't allow the transmission of content that is harassing.
  • Keep tangible evidence. Even though online harassment may leave an electronic trail, you should save and print offending messages as proof.
  • Get Internet savvy. You are less likely to be a target of cyberstalking if you're an experienced Internet user.
  • Safeguard your personal data - both on and off the Web.

"With just a little information about you," says Detective Sullivan, "an experienced stalker can easily take his threats from the Web to the offline world." "Using a computer, someone can break into your house without even walking in the front door." -

Deborah Boehle
Cyberangels Safeguarding Kids America

Speak Out Terms of use