Growing number of cyberstalking cases catches UPD’s attention

A growing number of students at GW and across the nation have become the targets of cyberstalking, and University police say many are unaware of the resources law enforcement can offer victims.

Eight of the 15 harassment cases reported to the University Police Department this fall have involved electronic devices, which includes texts, emails, messages from social media sites and phone calls.

Suzanne Combs, UPD’s coordinator of victims’ services, said because sending texts or online messages feels more anonymous than following someone in person, the problem can become more extreme.

“Some victims are harassed to a point where they cannot even look at their phone without seeing a message or notification from the perpetrator. It can be very consuming and complex,” Combs said.

In most cases, the victim and perpetrator already know each other, but students, faculty and staff have also come to Combs with reports of anonymous harassment.

Advances in technology have made stalking easier, she said, and created new ways to harass victims.

“Stalking used to be thought of as sending unwanted flowers or showing up at the workplace uninvited. Now perpetrators of stalking can use technology to follow, message or find information about the victim,” Combs said, pointing to tools like GPS tracking devices, photo sharing, cloud storage and social media.

UPD Chief Kevin Hay said the issue is “new enough” that GW is still working on educational campaigns about reporting it.

Hay said victims at GW are mostly women and their harassers are usually ex-boyfriends. In his three years at GW, he said he has never heard of an electronic harassment case escalating to physical violence.

He said GW can issue an order for one student to stay away from another in harassment cases, and perpetrators could face suspension if they violate the order.

In the most serious cases, in which a student receives threats of violence, GW can help a victim apply for a temporary restraining order in the D.C. court system. The District defines stalking as actions that are meant to make a person fear for his or her safety, feel seriously alarmed, disturbed or frightened, or suffer emotional distress.

Hay added that UPD detectives have even called perpetrators and explained cyberstalking laws over the phone to them. Campus police have partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department, departments in other cities and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to handle cases.

“We take it very seriously,” Hay said. “Every student here should be free of harassment. They should be able to study and not be dealing with old boyfriend-girlfriend issues or some stranger they met that they happen to give their phone number to once.”

Combs said her office shows victims how to block calls on their cell phones, explains legal options and connects them with counselors. The University has filed reports through the Internet Crime Complaint Center, an effort run by the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice.

In D.C., perpetrators face a maximum $1,000 fine and one year in prison. But if the person was prohibited from contacting the victim at the time or had a prior conviction within the last 10 years, he or she could face a $10,000 fine and five-year sentence.

Jayne Hitchcock, president of the national volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, advises victims to ask perpetrators to stop contacting them once. Then, victims should refrain from responding after that because “they’re giving the harasser the knowledge that they’re getting to them, and it just ups the ante.”

“They’re thinking, ‘What else can I do to really get them upset?’” Hitchcock said.

– Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report

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