Cyberstalking is a Growing Problem

Although there is no comprehensive, nationwide data on the extent of cyberstalking in the United States, some ISPs compile statistics on the number and types of complaints of harassment and/or threats involving their subscribers, and individual law enforcement agencies have compiled helpful statistics. There is, moreover, a growing amount of anecdotal and informal evidence on the nature and extent of cyberstalking.

First, data on offline stalking may provide some insight into the scope of the cyberstalking problem. According to the most recent National Violence Against Women Survey, which defines stalking as referring to instances where the victim felt a high level of fear:

In the United States, there are currently more than 80 million adults and 10 million children with access to the Internet. Assuming the proportion of cyberstalking victims is even a fraction of the proportion of persons who have been the victims of offline stalking within the preceding 12 months, there may be potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of victims of recent cyberstalking incidents in the United States. Although such a "back of the envelope" calculation is inherently uncertain and speculative (given that it rests on an assumption about very different populations), it does give a rough sense of the potential magnitude of the problem.

Second, anecdotal evidence from law enforcement agencies indicates that cyberstalking is a serious - and growing - problem. At the federal level, several dozen matters have been referred (usually by the FBI) to U.S. Attorney's Offices for possible action. A number of these cases have been referred to state and local law enforcement agencies because the conduct does not appear to violate federal law.

In addition, some local law enforcement agencies are beginning to see cases of cyberstalking. For example, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office estimates that e-mail or other electronic communications were a factor in approximately 20 percent of the roughly 600 cases handled by its Stalking and Threat Assessment Unit. The chief of the Sex Crimes Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office also estimates that about 20 percent of the cases handled by the unit involve cyberstalking. The Computer Investigations and Technology Unit of the New York City Police Department estimates that almost 40 percent of the caseload in the unit involves electronic threats and harassment -- and virtually all of these have occurred in the past three or four years.

Third, ISPs also are receiving a growing number of complaints about harassing and threatening behavior online. One major ISP receives approximately 15 complaints per month of cyberstalking, in comparison to virtually no complaints of cyberstalking just one or two years ago.

Finally, as part of a large study on sexual victimization of college women, researchers at the University of Cincinnati conducted a national telephone survey of 4,446 randomly selected women attending two- and four-year institutions of higher education. The survey was conducted during the 1996-97 academic year. In this survey, a stalking incident was defined as a case in which a respondent answered positively when asked if someone had "repeatedly followed you, watched you, phoned, written, e-mailed, or communicated with you in other ways that seemed obsessive and made you afraid or concerned for your safety." The study found that 581 women (13.1 percent) were stalked and reported a total of 696 stalking incidents; the latter figure exceeds the number of victims because 15 percent of the women experienced more than one case of stalking during the survey period. Of these 696 stalking incidents, 166 (24.7 percent) involved e-mail. Thus, 25 percent of stalking incidents among college women could be classified as involving cyberstalking.

[Compiled from 1999 Report on Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry, a Report from the Attorney General to the Vice President, August 1999].


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