Cyberstalking and Internet Harassment - Then and Now

The First Criminal Case of Cyber Harassment

Cyber Crime
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The first federal prosecution of cyber harassment in the United State was in June 2004 when 38-year-old James Robert Murphy from Columbia, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to two counts of Use of a Telecommunications Device (the internet) with Intent to Annoy, Abuse, Threaten or Harass.

According to investigators, Murphy was sending anonymous and uninvited emails to Seattle resident Joelle Ligon and to her co-workers as early as 1998.

Murphy and Ligon had dated on and off from 1984-1990. As time went on, the harassment increased and along with dozens of obscene emails each day, Murphy also began sending sexually explicit faxes to Ligon and her co-workers.

Can't Get Away

When Ligon moved to different states and changed jobs, Murphy was able to track her through malware he had placed on her computers and continue his attack. For over four years Ligon tried to ignore the messages by deleting them, but Murphy began making it appear that Ligon was the one sending the sexually explicit materials to her fellow workers.

Murphy also had special email programs in order to hide his identity and he created the "Anti Joelle Fan Club" (AJFC) and repeatedly sent threatening emails from this alleged group.

Ligon decided to start collecting the materials as evidence and went to the police who enlisted the help of the Northwest Cyber Crime Task Force, composed of the FBI, United States Secret Service, Internal Revenue Service, Seattle Police Department, and Washington State Patrol.

The NWCCTF investigates Cyber-related violations including criminal computer intrusions, intellectual property theft, child pornography and internet fraud.

She also managed to identify Murphy as the person harassing her and she obtained a court order barring contact. When Murphy emailed her, denying that he was harassing her, he violated the court order.

Murphy was indicted in April 2004 on 26 counts of sending harassing emails and other violations between May 2002 and April 2003.

At first, Murphy pleaded innocent to all charges, but two months later and after a plea agreement was reached, he pleaded guilty to two of the violations.

No Remorse From Murphy

In court, Murphy told the Judge what he did was "stupid, hurtful and just plain wrong. I was going through a bad patch in my life. I want to take my lumps and get on with life."

In sentencing Murphy Judge Zilly noted that he was surprised that Murphy "made no effort to indicate your remorse to the victim, to indicate you were sorry." The Judge noted that he had received a letter from Joelle Ligon unlike any he had ever received from a crime victim. In it Ligon asked the Judge to impose "an effective and compassionate sentence." Judge Zilly decided to impose 500 hours of community service instead of the 160 hours requested by the government.

Zilly also sentenced Murphy to five years of probation and more than $12,000 which was to paid to the City of Seattle to compensate the City for 160 hours of work time lost by employees dealing with the harassment.

The Crime of Cyberstalking Continues to Grow

It used to be that news reports such as Murphy's case were an oddity, but with the increase of people managing several aspects of their lives online, both at work and in their personal lives, it has created a vulnerability that attracts criminals including cyberstalkers, webcam blackmailers and identity thieves.

According to a poll released by Rad Campaign, Lincoln Park Strategies and Craig Newmark of craigconnects, a quarter of the American population has been bullied, harassed or threatened online and that number almost doubles for those under the age of 35.

A third of the victims of online harassment are afraid that the situation may spill over into their real lives resulting in embarrassment and humiliation, loss of jobs, and many are scared for their lives.

Reporting Online Harassment and Cyberstalking

Many victims of cyberstalking do like Joelle Ligon did when Murphy first harass her, she ignored it, but as the threats grew she sought help.

Today, it appears that the response by social networks and law enforcement is improving, with 61 percent of the reported cases resulting in the social networks shutting down the accounts of the offenders and 44 percent of reported cases to law enforcement resulted in an effort to track down the offender.

If You Are Threatened

Threats should never be ignored - report it. Keeping a record of the date and time of the threat, a screen shot, and hard copies is evidence. It not only can help authorities, social networks, ISPs and website host figure out the identity of the offender, but it also helps prove the level of the harassment which is the deciding factor on if, or if not, a complaint gets investigated.