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Saturday, 26 June, 1999, 01:48 GMT 02:48 UK
Cyberstalking: Pursued in cyber space
rogue email
Persecution over the Internet can be terrifying
Angela Westwater was stalked by a man who lived 5,000 miles away on another continent.

The married mother-of-two was horrified to find that her name and personal details had been posted onto a graphically sexual dating site - and that a distant relative living in Florida was responsible.

She told BBC News Online: "He had superimposed my head onto pictures of naked porn stars, and he had provided a lot of information about me, like my address and telephone number.

"He also posted a message somewhere else saying that I was his long lost love and that he was desperate for information about my whereabouts.

Escalation in UK expected

"He actually knew enough about me to put up pages saying things like I walked to work. It was quite frightening. I needed my husband to drive me to work for months because I didn't know who might have read his advert and be watching me."

That was back in 1996 - but the National Criminal Intelligence Service is warning that cyberstalking - harassment on the Internet - is set to escalate in the UK.

As more and more people become Internet users, the opportunities for abuse increase.

mail box
You've got mail: but do you want it?
Ironically, Mrs Westwater was not even on the Internet when the campaign of abuse was waged against her. She was told by a newspaper reporter who lived in the same area, and who had become intrigued by the frequency with which her address appeared on the Net.

New York-based cyber lawyer Parry Aftab says that targeting an individual on the Internet - by sending nasty E-mail, leaving offensive messages in guestbooks or posting misinformation about them - constitutes harassment and stalking.

She told BBC News Online: "It's become a very big problem in the United States, and is an increasing problem in the UK. Almost all victims are women."

Ms Aftab, who specialises in law issues presented by the Internet, also runs Cyber Angels - a site designed to help victims of cyber persecution, as well giving advice on Net safety.

"We are getting a number of inquiries from the UK now," she said. "Like the USA, these tend to fall into three camps.

"The first is typically the result of a failed relationship, where an ex-husband or an ex-boyfriend pursues the victim via email, and sends offensive material to her friends and employers.

"The second is where a relationship that has formed on the Internet has soured. Two people have met one another in a chat room, liked one another, have shared personal information perhaps, and then that information is used against them.

"Pictures can be morphed onto pornographic pictures and emailed to employers, postings can be made which make the victim look like she is offering sexual services, giving her telephone number.

"The third tends to be people who target just anyone - they just want the thrill of scaring people online. These often turn out to be children."

Internet providers take the issue very seriously, and say they work closely with the police to investigate any form of cyber crime.

Chairman of the Internet Service Providers Association, Tim Pearson, said that anyone who experienced harassment on the Internet should in the first instance contact the police, then send forward copies of abusive material to their ISP.

"But it can be very difficult to trace the sender, especially if they are using a different ISP," he said.

"However, any suspected criminal activity should be reported to the police, and they are able to issue warrants which allow the release of information from other ISPs under the Data Protection Act."

In essence, threatening and abusive messages, postings and email were to be regarded in exactly the same way as nuisance telephone calls, and reported to the police.

He said something a lot of Internet users did not realise was the sheer amount of personal information that can be traced from an E-mail address.

E-mail can reveal personal details

Victims can be led to believe that their stalker has been physically watching them, due to the sheer weight of personal details he is able to provide.

But in a lot of cases, their stalker has just hacked into the details they have given to service providers and other online services, and may live thousands of miles away.

Hackers have also been known to access email accounts and "forge" mail and postings, purporting to be from the victim.

you've got mail
Chat room exchanges don't always end as perfectly as they did for Meg and Hank
Ms Aftab says there are a number of measures users can take to help prevent them becoming victims.

They may opt to subscribe to an "anonymizing" service which leaves no trail of information through cyber space.

"Sexually over screen names should be avoided, for example," said Ms Aftab, "And choosing a genderless name is a good idea."

Paedophiles "seek out" children

Another distressing aspect of cyberstalking is that of paedophiles using chat rooms in an attempt to make contact with children.

Ms Aftab said: "Cyberstalking is not dangerous until the person tries to make contact offline - or someone who has read the information tries to make contact offline. But it is annoying and can be frightening.

"Paedophiles, however, are seeking out children they want to make physical contact with. The UK does not have a huge problem with this at the moment, because it does not have as many children online as the USA.

"But these are all issues that the UK is going to have to learn to deal with very quickly."

Parry Aftab explains what cyberstalking is
Cyber lawyer Parry Aftab explains the different aspects of cyberstalking
Ms Aftab: 'Just use common sense'
Ms Aftab: "Just use common sense"
See also:

28 Mar 99 | Kosovo
23 Jun 99 | Science/Nature
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