San Diego DA Zeroes In On Stalkers
March 26, 2013 12:46 p.m.
Brian Erickson, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney
Murray Jennex, SDSU College of Business Administration, specializes in internet systems security.
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CAVANAUGH: For years, a rejected suitor who was following you around was only thought of as persistent. Over the years, the concept of stalking has entered our vocabularies. My guests, San Diego County deputy district attorney Brian Erickson. Welcome.
ERICKSON: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Murray Jennex, one of his specialties is Internet security.
JENNEX: Good afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: Why is the District Attorney's Office releasing this podcast? Are stalking victims unaware of the help they can get?
ERICKSON: A lot of victims don't know what's out there. And stalking, this is not a 1-time deal. This is something that goes on and on and on. And on average, their statistics say someone has stalked for a year and a half more before any actions even take place. A lot of times the victims don't know what to do or don't realize they're being stalked. Or they don't realize it's a crime that this person who's stalking them is engaged in.
CAVANAUGH: How does the law define stalk something
ERICKSON: Anyone who repeated lie follows or harasses or makes a incredible threat with intimidation or fear.
CAVANAUGH: And what kinds of cases do you see? Are these usually people who have been romantically involved in some way?
ERICKSON: Probably about half and half, actually. Our unit deals with the nonrelationship type stalkers, and then another deals with the family relationship type stalking. It's probably about half, people that have had a relationship, the stalker is involved in engaging that relationship to go on and on, whether it be positive or negative, they're getting that attention from the person they want. And the nonrelationship type stalking is the people that are more engaged in the behavior, and they need that reaction from different people. They constantly need that reaction, usually negative, when they're stalking somebody.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We've heard of celebrity stalkers. What other kind of stalking would be nonromantic?
ERICKSON: A lot of it is business related, where somebody owes somebody money, they've done work for them, and then they owe them money and they get into an argument about the money. And then you'll see where the cyber stalking comes into play where they'll start destroying someone's reputation over the Internet in order to get them to pay that money so they're going to wrong this person and out them in a business sense. I've seen a lot of that. A lot of it is an obsessional -- they think they're in love with this person and this person is going to be in love with them when they're not.
CAVANAUGH: Can you give us some examples of what stalkers do or have done?
ERICKSON: Sure. A lot of it is the following, and being this, and being seen. And stalking is a phenom where most people who commit crimes don't want to get caught. And I don't say stalkerce want to get caught, but they literally have to leave their calling card because they need to let that person know I'm here, I'm in your life, I'm harassing you, threatening you and I'm going to make your life difficult. So in that sense they do the following, they gather information on them, they have information on them, they will break into their houses, vandalize different things, steal things from them. Spread rumors about them. I've seen it all. They'll attack their business reputation to the point where the person can't do business in the city anymore.
CAVANAUGH: And at what point can a victim turn to law enforcement and say someone is stalking me, I'm having this programR problem, can you do something for me?
ERICKSON: I tell people immediately if they feel that they're threatened. Obviously if their safety is threatened, if somebody is making a direct threat to them, call the police
. Get that ball rolling. It takes a while. And this is what's frustrating, it takes a while to build that case. Because you need the evident, the pattern, and a lot of times victims don't realize it's going on. Save every e-mail, save every phone call. Save that. And not only save what they're doing, but save in that journal how it makes them feel. One of the things that I need to prove when this comes to court is that this person of afraid. And what may not seem terrifying to you or I may be terrifying to this victim. For an example, I had a case where this victim loved birds, she had a lot of birds, this person killed a bird and left it on her doorstep. The police officer comes and says well, the bird flew into the door, whatever. But once the victim explains it, he knows I love birds, that's how their mindset is and they'll do things to hurt this victim specifically but not make it look like something that's necessarily threatening to you or me.
CAVANAUGH: Generically threatening.
ERICKSON: Yeah, so it takes a while to build that case and get it going. But we need to know how you feel and how you normally feel. In a normal criminal case, it doesn't matter how the victim feels. With stalking, it's an element. They have to make that credible threat.
CAVANAUGH: Murray Jennex, social media and the information that's on it is now making it more -- easier for people to gather information on each other.
JENNEX: Oh, absolutely. And our own behavior, a lot of people like to post about themselves and tell other people what they're doing. So people who are trying to cyber stalk you can really got a huge harvest of information on you by just walking your Facebook page, watching -- maybe signing up to listen to your tweets or even just Googling.
CAVANAUGH: So what should people be aware of when they're posting on online?
JENNEX: The information you post online is the stuff about yourself. The details about yourself, where you live your phone number. I've had incidents where students have sent in a resume, and the person from the company will ask them out on a date. I've had another case where a couple had broke up, and one of them pursued the other by posting bad stories about them on the Internet which is a fairly common approach, and you mentioned breaking in, I think a lot of times when you post on the web gets you in trouble, but also when people break in, they can get access to your computer and install software and help them get even more information about you.
CAVANAUGH: I would imagine there are some people who don't realize, if you break up with someone and then start posting false information about them or scandalous material, that that is potentially -- they could get them into trouble.
ERICKSON: It is. And it's a form of harassing behavior, obviously. And that's one of the things I see the most, especially in that breakup situation. The posting of the unflattering picture. But along the same lines, you whenever a relationship, it can be as simple as who bought the phone for who? So who has access to that bill? The person can get the records, see who you're calling, what you're doing. And what I tell victims is immediately get off of Facebook for that reason. But even a simple picture that you take with a smart phone is going to imprint in that picture where it's taken, what time it's taken down to the latitude and longitude.
CAVANAUGH: Smart phones is an area we don't spend a lot of time thinking about when it comes to protecting ourselves or our information.
JENNEX: Smart phones are really small computers. And everything that your laptop is susceptible to, the same thing happens on a cellphone. It's relatively easy to attack cellphones and get into the phonebook, the picture files. And you mentioned the geotagging on the pictures. When your friends are posting a picture of you on Facebook it now becomes available to that stalker.
CAVANAUGH: Besides someone who is perhaps obsessed with another person and who wants to find out everything about that person when & what they do, there's other people who might want to use that information that they pick up online to hurt you in some way.
JENNEX: Well, are yes. Identity theft and stalking are very similar. In the case of stalking, there's a personal motive.
CAVANAUGH: And scam artists use that as well.
JENNEX: Absolutely. I had one this morning. Yesterday I bought an airline ticket to go to a conference. Last night I get an e-mail with my itinerary. It was fake, and they were trying to get me to download malware.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of laws do we have to protect people from cyber stalking?
ERICKSON: It's basically the same stalking law, harassment. A lot of stalkers, it's easier for them online because they can make this person fear and they don't have to go out and literally do the dirty work. They're doing it from their computer. Stalking laws came into effect in the '90s, and they expanded it to telephone, Internet.
CAVANAUGH: So if a person is a victim of this, they go to law enforcement and deem that currently, if you get something sent to you on the Internet, a photograph that somebody should not have, but they picked it up somewhere and they want you to know that they know where you are, that would qualify as something that was threatening?
ERICKSON: Is that person threatened and would someone else be threatened by that? And of course they would, because how did they get this information? They had to go through all the steps to get it to place this person in fear. Each case is different. But when you look at it alone, it doesn't look that bad. But when you get all of that information, that's why I said to collect all of that and keep all of that, it really shows that pattern. And it shows the intent of the person that's doing the stalking.
CAVANAUGH: Is it a good idea to tell your friends and coworkers and neighbors that you are being stalked?
ERICKSON: Absolutely. And I know it's difficult for the victims. How far, this person is now stalking me, they're threatening me, you need to know. For the nonrelationship, it's a lot easier, but it's still somewhat embarrassing. You go to your coworkers and tell them all. But especially in this day and age, if the person you're sitting next to is being threatened by someone else, I sure would want to know that. Everybody should know. Plus they should know there's a restraining order in effect, let's post that picture there. And don't engage the person. Call the police immediately and let them take care of it. Restraining order is very important, but it's just a piece of paper. It's not going to stop bullets, it's not going to stop a knife. But it's a step in the right direction.
CAVANAUGH: There any way for someone to know, through some sort of program or whatever that lets you see who's accessing your information?
JENNEX: Well, you can check. But I can't tell you that it's going to be absolutely correct. Unless you can get that person's computer and actually search that computer and find where they originated the message, you can't say for 100% certainty that they did it. And that's part of the problem with cyber stalking. You can have everything point to somebody, but you can still have somebody else spoofing them.
CAVANAUGH: There are laws to prevent or intervene and catch who's stalking you, what are the sentences like?
ERICKSON: Stalking can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the behavior. So it can be from probation to prison. One of the things we try to do is get them involved in a stalking program where they can address that behavior and hopefully stop it from happening in the future. But it can be anything from probation to prison.
CAVANAUGH: And as you said, this is sometimes a multiyear thing that people have to deal with. And sometimes they have to deal with it when somebody is released from serving a sentence for stalking. Do people just get so fed up that they change their identities?
ERICKSON: A lot of times if it comes to that, they'll move from the state, they'll change their jobs, phone numbers. And one of the good things with cellphones is you can block numbers very easily. But as we were talking about the spoofing, they'll get around that and do that. But at least when we get them in the system, even if they have a misdemeanor conviction, we can get a 10-year stayaway order. And that allows -- most would be for a 3-year period. If you're convicted, you can get one for 10 years, which means the victim doesn't have to go back in and be revictimized by playing by the rules.
CAVANAUGH: How can our listeners access this pod cast?
ERICKSON: Go to the San Diego County district attorney's website.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.
ERICKSON: Thank you.
JENNEX: Thank you.