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Feds find dangerous cyberstalking hard to prevent

June 12, 2000
Web posted at: 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT)

(IDG) -- State and local governments are struggling to contain a new, high-tech criminal: the cyberstalker.

Legislators across the country have enacted new laws and updated old ones to prevent cyberstalking -- the Information Age crime in which victims are bombarded with threatening electronic messages while the stalker hides behind the Internetās veil of anonymity.

The new legislation gives law enforcement officials the power to prosecute high-tech stalkers. But the criminals can be nearly impossible to catch.


"By definition, any crime you have to investigate in cyberspace is going to be difficult," said Gail Thackeray, technology crimes special counsel to the Arizona Attorney General's office. Cyberstalkers "don't leave the familiar kinds of trails -- they're much harder to track down."

In a report last August, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno urged states to enact and update laws to crack down on cyberstalking, which she defined as the use of e-mail or any other electronic communication to "repeatedly harass or threaten another person."

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Cyberstalking, Reno warned, is often "a prelude to more serious behavior, including physical violence." In the most extreme case of cyberstalking, a New Hampshire man repeatedly threatened his victim via e-mail messages, bragged on his personal World Wide Web page that he would kill her, then finally did.

Although there are few statistics on the number of cyberstalking crimes, many states and municipalities report a surge in stalking in which e-mail is the weapon of choice. About 20 percent of the 600 cases reviewed by Los Angeles' Stalking and Threat Assessment Team last year involved e-mail or other electronic communications, said Los Angeles deputy district attorney Rhonda Saunders.

In response, 22 states have enacted cyberstalking laws in the past three years. Another 15 state legislatures have cyberstalking bills pending, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But passing legislation has proved to be the easy part. A case in California, the first state with such laws, is a prime example of how difficult it can be to catch and prosecute cyberstalkers.

Gary Dellapenta, 50, a Los Angeles security guard, pleaded guilty last April to charges that he attempted to use the Internet to solicit the rape of a female acquaintance.

Dellapenta admitted that he posed as his victim -- a woman who had spurned him -- in sex-themed Internet chat rooms by placing personal ads in the woman's name. A slew of men answered the lurid ads, and Dellapenta sent them e-mail messages in reply, claiming that the woman fantasized about being raped.

In the e-mails, he included the woman's name, physical description, address and telephone number. He concluded the messages with tips on how to bypass the woman's home security system.

Six men came to the 28-year-old woman's home saying they wanted to rape her. Dellapenta was ultimately sentenced to six years in a California state prison. The conviction was a victory for law enforcement, but one that required an enormous amount of manpower.

Collaborating in Dellapenta's arrest were the FBI, the Los Angeles District Attorney and Sheriff offices and even the victim's father, who learned of Dellapenta's identity by responding to the chat room messages himself.

Many cyberstalkers remain at large, however, because most municipalities don't have the necessary expertise and manpower.

"Quite simply, most police departments and law enforcement agencies do not have the capacity to figure out who is committing these crimes," said Robert Morgester, a California deputy attorney general who specializes in high-technology crimes. "They don't have the training, and they don't have the tools."

The first obstacle to most law enforcement agencies is a lack of training in the intricacies of Internet service providers and e-mail accounts. To guard his identity, a cyberstalker may use numerous ISPs and e-mail providers, all of which typically refuse to release clients' identities.

Dellapenta had online accounts with three out-of-state companies; investigators needed search warrants for all three to track down Dellapenta's e-mail provider. The e-mail account was with a fourth company, in Oregon. Because Oregon does not have a cyberstalking law, it took investigators weeks to get the search warrants necessary to prove that Dellapenta had sent the illegal e-mails.

Until all states pass cyberstalking laws, investigators will spend too much time getting search warrants while cyberstalkers continue terrorizing their victims, Thackeray said. "You can't do cyber investigations at Pony Express speed. It's good that some states are passing legislation to make things easier, but we need all 50 states to do it."

On top of ISPs' strict privacy policies, investigators also struggle with a tangle of federal laws that protect the privacy of anyone who communicates via the Internet.

Three federal laws -- the Privacy Protection Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Cable Communication Provider Act -- overlap and contradict one another in protecting Internet users' identities and personal information.

Prosecutors who aren't thoroughly familiar with the laws can unwittingly violate one or more of those laws and provide cyberstalking suspects with grounds for a lawsuit alleging invasion of privacy.

"The bottom line is unless you have trained law enforcement that understands how those laws interrelate, then you run into all sorts of problems," Morgester said. "You open yourself up to huge liability as well as possible suppression of evidence in court."

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of a cyberstalking investigation is the crime scene: Many of the clues are locked up inside the suspect's computer. To reveal the suspect's secrets, police need computer forensic experts, who are in short supply.

"The computer should be the smoking gun," Morgester said. "But there are a lot of ways to hide information on a computer, and you need a well-trained person to unlock it."

Despite the obstacles, investigators such as Gail Thackeray are pleased to have new state laws that provide tougher sentences for cyberstalkers, who now often end up with little more than a penalty of community service.

In a case that Thackeray investigated last year, she tracked down a Phoenix man who harassed his ex-girlfriend by posting personal ads in a Phoenix community Web site. The ads gave the woman's home and work address and claimed that she was seeking sex partners. In a span of two weeks, more than three dozen men appeared at her workplace and home expecting sex.

Phoenix police eventually arrested the man. But, because Arizona did not have a cyberstalking law, prosecutors charged him with a lesser crime: using the identity of another person. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail.

"I'm counting the days until July 18, when the new law goes into effect -- it includes a stiff penalty for cyberstalking," Thackeray said. The law will make it easier to obtain subpoenas and will "give us the ability to track these people down much quicker."

And high-tech crime experts say that the number of cyberstalking cases will rise. With the ease and anonymity of e-mail, Morgester said, electronic stalking will become a far more common crime.

"Without ever leaving home, someone can do all sorts of terrible things to a person," he said. "The Internet has just made it a whole lot easier for individuals to stalk."

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