Cyber-Stalking: Obsessional Pursuit and the Digital Criminal
                            by Wayne Petherick


Though the legal recognition of stalking is a recent evolution, the
behaviour that is involved is by no means a product of the 20th century. It
is known though that criminal behaviour is incredibly adaptive to new
technologies, with credit card, mobile phone and computer fraud as
examples. It is also acknowledged that stalking has now taken an on-line
form, colloquially referred to as cyber-stalking.

As the personal computer and the Internet bring the world into our homes,
they provide access to a vast amount of information, and provide forums for
individuals from all over the world to meet one another in a relatively
anonymous environment. One example of these forums is the chat room where
people from hundreds of countries may gather and meet, trade information
and files, and chat about a range of topics from music to sex. Though this
has bred a large number of international relationships, most of which prove
harmless, it does present the possibility that ones on-line personality may
become the target of unwanted attention.

Cyberstalking, which is simply an extension of the physical form of
stalking, is where the electronic mediums such as the Internet are used to
pursue, harass or contact another in an unsolicited fashion. Most often,
given the vast distances that the Internet spans, this behaviour will never
manifest itself in the physical sense but this does not mean that the
pursuit is any less distressing. There are a wide variety of means by which
individuals may seek out and harass individuals even though they may not
share the same geographic borders, and this may present a range of
physical, emotional, and psychological consequences to the victim.

It is the purpose of this paper to examine the wider phenomenon of stalking
and to cover issues relating to legal and behavioural classifications, and
to examine the incidence and prevalence of stalking. Some of the measures
that may be employed by individuals in protecting their on-line identity
will also be addressed.

Legal Classifications

Though the behaviour widely identified as stalking has existed for
centuries, the legal system has only codified its presence in the statutes
in recent decades. As a result, cyberstalking could truly be identified as
a crime of the nineties owing to its reliance on computer and
communications technology which have only reached maturity in the past

It is difficult to find literature relating specifically to cyberstalking,
and according to Eoghan Casey (1999), a computer crimes expert, incidences
involving a purely electronic medium are rare. The on-line behaviour we are
now witnessing is most accurately described as an extension of
‘traditional’ stalking that utilises a high-tech modus operandi (method of
operation). Owing to this, one should consult the general literature
relating to stalking for information on this adaptation of the criminal

In legal terms, the manifestation of this misconduct is most likely to be
charged as per the statutes in place in the respective jurisdictions. In
the United States, California was the first state to adopt stalking laws,
most often identified as a result of the murder of actress Rebecca
Schaeffer by Robert Bardo in 1989. Legislation was subsequently passed in
1990, and the nation's first anti-stalking law was passed (Zona, Palarea &
Lane, 1998; Coleman, 1997; National Victim Centre, 1998b). New York enacted
Penal Code 240.25 in 1992, which was amended in 1994 (National Victim
Centre, 1998a).

Australian states to enact stalking legislation around the same time
include Queensland with Section 359A of the Criminal Code prohibiting
Unlawful Stalking in 1993. Victoria however, was the first Australian state
to judiciously guard against this conduct in 1958, with Section 21A of the
Crimes Act in 1958 (Victims of Crime, 1998).

Irrespective of the jurisdiction, there are several key criteria for
conduct to be considered stalking. Many states include a provision whereby
the behaviour must occur on two or more occasions before the criteria are
satisfied. In other states, a single occurrence is sufficient (Queensland
is one such state where the frequency of conduct has since been amended).
Several US states (Delaware, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma ) allow for the
consideration of harsher penalties where repeat offences relate
specifically to prior incidences of stalking (Cullen-Anderson, 1993).

Given the ability of individuals to ‘mask’ their identity when using the
Internet, linking the harassment to one particular individual may prove
difficult, providing law enforcement with a challenge if prosecution should
become an option. Programs that mask ones IP (Internet Protocol) address
and anonymous remailers are merely two examples that hinder the
identification of the digital location from which communications originate.
This is important when considering that many statutes require that the
threat be real. Lisa Rosier, of the Queensland Police Service who was
trained by the Los Angeles Police Department states: "If a person is making
these threats from the US, then there is little chance that the threat can
be carried out" (The Australian, 1998). Rosier also points out that the
psychological torment may still be very real, even in the absence of a
distinct physical threat. One of the things that investigators may have in
their favour is that such ‘pure’ cyberstalking, that which occurs entirely
on the Internet, is rare (Casey, 1999) and as such will cross the virtual
and extend into the physical.

There is a definite gap between the legal statutes and the electronic
world. Of the US states that have anti-stalking laws, only seven contain
language that deal with stalking by computer (Jenson, 1996; Meloy, 1998).
Examples of the differences in behaviour between the physical and virtual
realm include hand delivering a letter (be it threat or otherwise) and e-
mailing it to the victim. Other on-line examples may be e-mail bombs,
threatening, degrading or demeaning communications, and assuming your on-
line persona in places you frequent, such as chat rooms, for the purpose of
posting personal details about you or your life. One such case in which the
latter was a problem will be covered in the coming sections.

While it is important to consider legal issues relating to stalking, they
often fail to take into account the behavioural diversity evidenced in the
act. For the investigator or concerned net-user, information relating to
the behaviour often exhibited by a stalker will be important, as this may
provide insight into possible motivations behind the offender. The next
section will provide such explanations of stalking, from a motivational
point of view, in the form of stalking typologies. A typology is broadly
defined as the clustering together of individuals based upon shared
characteristics. A summary shall also cover topical issues relating to the
etiology, or causes of stalking.

Stalking Typologies and Pathologies

According to forensic scientist and criminal profiler, Brent Turvey (1998),
most typologies fail to take into account the motivational dynamics between
offenders. These dynamics vary in range with stalking, and differ in a
number of ways. For this reason, typologies are best employed to provide
investigators with an initial picture of the offender, and are not intended
to be used as definitive proof of an offender's characteristics. Common
distinctions within the typologies include those with a prior relationship
with the victim, those without a prior relationship, and those motivated by
a disorder referred to as erotomania.

Zona, Pallarea & Lane (1998) believe that stalking occurs when an
individual's behaviour is related to a cognition (a thought). To possess
the cognition is not enough, as it must be related to a behaviour to fulfil
legal requirements. Many statutes require that there must be conduct to be

Vernon Geberth, a retired homicide commander and author of Practical
Homicide Investigation (1996) provides two broad categories of stalkers.
These are Psychopathic Personality Stalkers and Psychotic Personality
Stalkers. The following table outlines some of the characteristics of each:

Psychopathic Personality Stalker Psychotic Personality Stalker
   Generally male May be male or female 
   Absence of mental disorder Delusions or delusional fixation 
   Targets familiar victims Usually targets strangers 
   Harassment may be anonymous Attempt to contact the victim 
   Usually some precipitating stressor Absence of precipitating stressor 

This is a somewhat general and broad classification system on which to
examine stalking. The latter category usually implies the presence of some
mental disorder, and the individual may not or may not be aware of his

Zona, Pallarea & Lane (1998) and Zona, Sharma & Lane (1993) provide a more
comprehensive interpersonal typology based on the relationship between the
victim and offender. In studies with the Los Angeles Police Department’s
Threat Management Unit, Zona and colleagues (1993; 1998) initially
categorised stalkers according to three basic categories. The later
discovery of a fourth covered those instances where the individual claims
that someone is stalking them in order to assume the role of the victim.
The results of the above studies indicate the following classifications:

Simple Obsessional: These cases typically involve a victim and a
perpetrator who have a prior relationship. This group comprises the largest
of the categories (47 percent (Geberth, 1992)), and also poses most threat
to the victim. The motivation behind this may be coercion to re-enter a
relationship, or revenge aimed at making the life of the former intimate
uncomfortable through the inducement of fear.  Love Obsessional: Most
likely involving no prior relationship. The victims may become known
through the media, or perhaps through the Internet. Love obsessional
stalkers comprise the second largest group of approximately 43% (Geberth,
1992). A large number of these individuals may be suffering from a mental
disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The most common type is
the individual who pursues a celebrity, which may be more familiar as the
"obsessed fan syndrome".  Erotomanic: These cases differ from Love
Obsessional in that they possess the delusion that the target of the
behaviour is in love with them (lowest incidence in the Zona and Threat
Management Unit study (Geberth, 1992). Research would indicate that
perpetrators are more likely to be female, with the majority of victims
being older males of higher social status. Further broken into two
categories of primary (or pure) erotomania where no other significant
disorders are present, and secondary erotomania where the disorder is the
result of another significant, dominant pathology. 

False Victimisation Syndrome: This group accuses another person, either
real or imaginary of stalking (Hickey, 1997) to foster sympathy and support
from those around them. The majority of the perpetrators seem to be female
(adapted from Zona and others; Mullen and Pathe, 1994; Mullen, 1997). 

In erotomanic stalking, the "central theme of an erotic delusion is that
one is loved by another" (American Psychiatric Association, 1994: p. 297).
It would seem that erotomania occupies the dominant position within the
psychological and psychiatric literature, even though this disorder appears
to occur within the minority of cases, as will be discussed. Meloy (1998)
states that "stalking research was born from the psychiatric study of
erotomania and the psychological study of sexual harassment" (p. 79), which
could possibly explain why this literature still dominates. A typology
similar to that of Zona and colleagues has been developed by Wright,
Burgess, Laszlo, McCrary & Douglas (1996), a group that includes several
retired FBI officers. In the development of their system, they studied 30
case reviews and based their assessment on many variables including
delusions, motive, outcome, and risk level of the victim. Their results
would indicate two broad divisions: Non-Domestic Stalkers (with the
subtypes of Organised and Delusional) and the Domestic Stalker. This system
closely resembles that devised by Zona and colleagues in their categories
of Love Obsessional, Erotomanic, and Simple Obsessional respectively. 

It would appear that stalking may be a result of other clinical problems,
and Burt, Sulkowicz & Wolfrage (1997) present the case of a 23-year-old
single female with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who began obsessively
pursuing a male friend on the Internet as a result of the disorder. The
following exert outlines the pursuit:

"She had been spending approximately 8 hours per day monitoring his
communication with another woman and was unable to control her compulsions,
despite recognising this behaviour as abnormal" She found that he logged on
at the same hour every day, and assumed he was having a scheduled
appointment with an on-line partner." Discovering that this was a woman
increased her anxiety, yet the act of monitoring reduced her symptoms." The
patient then proceeded to find out other information about the woman,
secured the phone numbers of her parents and called them in disguise" (p.

It should be noted that this is only one case, and caution should be
employed before any generalisations are made. The above case does, however,
provide an interesting possibility as to the emergence of stalking
behaviour in this particular individual.

It is important to note that stalking, exactly like any other crime,
behaviour, or clinical disorder exists on a continuum of severity. The
stalking may be so subtle that the victim may not even know that it is
happening, or the perpetrator may have a genuine belief that "if they would
just get to know me, they would like me", with no malicious intent desired.
Many cases of stalking do not even rise to extreme levels of violence or
harassment (Meloy, 1998). The severity of any act must be assessed on an
individual basis, and a careful assessment made as to the likelihood that
any activity would pass beyond a non-criminal threshold.

Incidence and Prevalence

Cyberstalking, much like any other crime, is hard to assess in terms of its
incidence and prevalence within any given population. The reasons for this
are many and varied, though include the fact that the victim may not
consider the behaviour to be dangerous, they may not know they are being
stalked or they may believe that little can be done about the problem.

One of the ways that estimates are derived is through the examination of
the disorder in clinical populations, though this too is inexact because
the perpetrator may never present for clinical treatment. Often, estimates
of the incidence of stalking in the general population are simple
extrapolations of these clinical populations.

While the majority of stalking literature does focus on erotomania as the
most prolific type, there is little support for this stalker type as the
most prevalent (Harmon, Rosner & Owens, 1995).

In the chapter deClerembault On-line: A Survey of Ertomania and Stalking
from the Old World to the World Wide Web, Lloyd-Goldstein (1998), the
author cites that only 20% of male cases in the original reports of
deClerembault (who the disorder is often named after), and 20 - 30% of male
cases in Segal’s 1989/1990 estimates were erotomanic. Only six of the 48
cases of Harmon, Rosner & Owens (1995) study were confirmed as suffering
from primary erotomania, with a minimal finding (10%) of the non-forensic
cohort in Zona, Sharma & Lane (1993) being classified as primary

Goode (1995) illustrates "the standard psychiatric typology accepts
erotomania as a delusional disorder but…by no means are all stalkers
erotomanics" (p. 30), with Mullen (1997) stating that "the prevalence of
erotomanic syndromes, both pure and clearly symptomatic, is unknown" (p.
10). Not all of those with an erotomanic condition will present for
treatment, perhaps doing so only if referred by a doctor, or upon receiving
an order from an agent of the criminal justice system.

It has been estimated that approximately 20,000 Americans are being stalked
at the moment (D’Amico, 1997), with somewhat more liberal estimates ranging
as high as 200,000 (Jenson, 1996). Australian data from the Bureau of
Statistics suggests that in 1997 more than 165,000 women over the age of 18
were stalked (Lancaster, 1998). Further estimates suggest that as many as
one in 20 adults will be stalked in their lifetime and that up to 200,000
exhibit a stalkers traits (Tharp, 1992). Evidence collected by the Los
Angeles District Attorney’s office suggests that of the 600 cases reviewed,
roughly 20 % of them involved some form of electronic communication (L.A.
Times, Saturday 23rd of January, 1999). Given the latter finding, there is
sufficient evidence to warrant that electronic mediums are in fact
providing the stalker with new avenues for the deliverance of their threat.

The Centre for Disease Control conducted an extensive telephone survey,
funded by the National Institute of Justice, of 8000 men and 8000 women
inquiring about their experiences with stalking. Their results indicate
that approximately 8% of [US] women and 2% of [US] men have been stalked at
some time in their life. Also, that an estimated 1 million females and 0.4
million males are stalked in the US annually (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1997).
Results of similar studies would suggest that the majority of stalking
cases are heterosexual in nature, with less than 1% of these crimes
occurring between homosexual persons. Meloy & Gothard (1995) found similar
results among their study of forensic populations, with approximately 90%
male perpetrators with female victims.

In 1987, Harmon and colleagues found that referrals to a court clinic were
in the 0.6% range, while they rose to 1.7% in 1993. We must be cautious
when interpreting these figures however, as they may not necessarily
reflect a rise in the incidence of stalking cases, rather, they may
indicate legal codification of the act, an increase in the awareness of the
act (which could subsequently lead to a rise in reporting), or decreased
public tolerance.

The study of the demographics of stalking perpetrators provides some
interesting information. For instance, stalkers are generally of a more
mature age than other clinical and offender populations (Meloy, 1998;
Harmon, Rosner & Owens, 1995; Mullen & Pathe, 1994; Zona, Sharma & Lane,
1993). Stalkers have usually attained a greater educational achievement
than other types of offenders (Lloyd-Goldstein, 1998; Meloy, 1996) with 42%
having finished some high school, 22% graduating high school, and 6% having
graduated college (taken from the Harmon, Rosner & Owens, 1995 study).
Ethnicity in this clinical population would appear to be predominantly non-
white (52% black, 25% hispanic, 9% unknown, and 0.4% oriental). Lloyd
Goldstein (1998) states that perhaps as many as 10 % of stalking cases
involve perpetrators who are foreign born, perhaps indicating that
immigration is a risk factor in some stalking scenarios (Meloy, 1998).

Cyberstalking - A Case Study

To appreciate the possible breadth of this problem, we must realise that
the Internet reaches into literally millions of homes, in hundreds of
countries. The same networks as those used for the transmission of
information, business transactions, banking and gaming also provide a
virtual backdrop from which individuals may conduct electronic crimes of
varying natures. The nature and extent of cyberstalking is perhaps more
difficult to assess than its terrestrial cousin, given the anonymity and
breath of electronic communications.

While the differences between the two forms of stalking must be
acknowledged, it is most important to acknowledge that cyberstalking is
fundamentally an extension of the physical act. Casey (1999) cautions: "the
overarching message here is that we should concentrate on the details, the
uniqueness and complexity of a case rather than get caught up on
typologies, terminology or the fact that we are dealing with a different
medium". The diversity of the problem will only truly be known once a
larger number of cases are presented to both researchers and the criminal
justice system for examination.

One could not be blamed for assuming that to become the victim of such
behaviour, that access to a personal computer and the Internet would be a
requisite. The following example though, illustrates how these two tools
are not a requirement, and the inability to access either technology does
not necessarily protect one from the reaches of the Cyberstalker. It also
illustrates rather well how the stalker would transverse both the physical
and the virtual realms.

The victim met the perpetrator at church, and continually rejected his
romantic attempts. The perpetrator, a fifty-year-old security guard,
retaliated to her rejection by posting her personal details to the
Internet. These included her physical description, address and telephone
number, and even including details about how one could bypass her home
security system. He also posted false rape and "gang-bang" fantasies to on-
line forums. On approximately half a dozen occasions, men arrived at the
victim's home in the hope of "cashing in" on these supposed fantasies. As
the victim posted messages to her door stating these requests were false,
the perpetrator posted messages on-line stating that these were simply
tests to determine who was in fact ‘worthy’ of her fantasies.

The victim's mother states that she had men coming to her door at all hours
of the night, and that "she got dozens of calls by men who would leave
filthy, disgusting messages". The victim was eventually forced from her
home, suffered from weight loss, lost her job, and developed a fear of
going outside of her home (from the L.A. Times, Friday the 22nd of January,
1999 and Saturday the 23rd of January, 1999).

The subsequent effects of this behaviour on the victim include distinct
psychological impairments and behaviour change that brought about the loss
of the victim's home and job. While the offender may never have intended
for the victim to come to physical harm, the presence of the threat was
always real, and the possibility that this harm came through a third party
was ever present. Despite issues relating to her personal safety, the
psychological effects of this harassment are unmistakable.

Risk Management

This chapter will centre largely on the measures that may be employed by
the individual in the hope of reducing the threat posed by an individual
who may choose to pursue or harass them. The following will cover some
simple tactics that may be employed to help keep ones identity safe, as
well as providing some guidance should individuals ever find themselves the
target of unwanted attention.

E-Mail Address: You should create a gender neutral e-mail address. Given
that females comprise the majority of victims of stalkers, the user should
attempt to keep her/his e-mail address as neutral as possible. Provocative
e-mail addresses such as Sex_Kitten@ should be avoided as they often
attract a lot of attention.

Profile: If using chat rooms or other similar forums, the software
generally provides the ability to edit your profile. Remove any information
of a personal nature, as this makes it more difficult for others to gather
information about you. It allows for greater control over the amount of
information that you want to provide, such as when and how, and to whom.

Signature: Your e-mail software will often allow you to attach a signature
to your mail. Remember, when you allocate a signature it may be attached to
all of your outgoing mail. This may provide others with information about
you that you would prefer not to be distributed.

Headers: When e-mail is sent, the header contains information that may
include identifying features such as name and e-mail address. This
information is often sent without the users awareness, and a browse through
the options of your mail software should allow you to turn this off.

Newsgroups: Depending on the newsgroups you use, posting messages to them
may be a way that you can attract unwanted attention. If it is necessary to
post a message to a newsgroup, try using a third party e-mail site such as
Yahoo or Hotmail, or perhaps send messages through an anonymous e-mailer.
The latter service sends your mail after stripping all of the identifying
information about the original sender (adapted from Casey, 1998 and
Grossman, 1998).

While the above measures will not provide absolute anonymity for the user,
they will hopefully hinder the process of identifying the user should
anyone show an unhealthy interest in that person. The philosophy behind
these measures is basically that prevention is better than cure.

It is very important that should you become the target of a stalker's
attention, that any and all communication is documented. E-mails should be
printed and copied to disk, phone calls should be logged for time and date,
and written communication should be kept for future reference. Meloy (1997)
provides the following recommendations if one becomes the victim of a

Team approach: Owing to the diversity of stalker types, the motivational
origins and dynamics that exist between individual cases requires that any
investigating team be made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds.
A team approach is the best way to approach this, and ideally should
include "the victim, an emotionally-supportive companion, a mental health
professional, a local police officer familiar with the case, a local
prosecutor and, in some cases, a private attorney and private
investigator/security guard" (p. 175). The team approach will provide the
best possible coverage of issues relating to the stalking threat and risk
management. The team developed will obviously differ depending on the
jurisdiction in which the offence occurs.

Personal safety: Regardless of any involvement by the police or legal
system, the individual should be made aware that one still has primary
responsibility for ones own safety. To take control of certain aspects of
the situation helps one to maintain a feeling of control over what may
otherwise foster feelings of helplessness.

Documentation and recording: Depending on the specific behaviours evidenced
within a stalking act, often the only record of fact may be the
documentation and enumeration of any and all incidences. Ideally, records
should be kept of the time, day, and date, and also of the specifics of the
particular act. If the behaviour does manifest itself physically, records
should be kept of handwriting, license plate numbers, dress, time of day,
and if available, return numbers from caller ID units.

No initiated contact: While refraining from contact with the stalker may be
difficult, especially in cases where the offender is a former intimate,
this should be avoided at all costs. By initiating contact, the victim may
be unwittingly reinforcing the behaviour of the offender in that "each
victim contact with the perpetrator is an intermittent reinforcement and
predicts an increase in frequency of subsequent approach behaviour" (p.
177). Westrup (1998) provides a functional analysis of stalking from a
functional analysis perspective of the stalker's behaviour. Interested
readers should consult this reference for further information.

Protective orders: These orders do protect the victim in certain cases.
Restraining orders possibly exert the greatest influence over the
offender's behaviour when they have a stake in conformity. In certain
situations, these orders may only serve to inflame the situation, as in the
following extreme situation:

"One offender quite graphically indicated his contempt for both the order
of protection and the criminal justice system. He stabbed his wife to death
and knifed the court order to her chest" (Geberth, 1992: p. 138)

Law enforcement and prosecution: The Los Angeles Police Department’s Threat
Management Unit is just one example of the law enforcement response to
stalking. Specific units such as this are better equipped and prepared to
handle individual cases, as they are manned by experts in the field.

Periodic Violence Assessment: While violence prediction is often poor at
predicting the threat posed to one individual by another (Turvey, 1997;
Litwack and Schlesinger, 1997; Adair, 1993; Quinsey and Maguire, 1986) any
such assessment will provide a greater chance of success at detecting
deviation from socially acceptable behaviour.


Stalking as a behaviour is characterised by a different constellation of
behaviours, with a great degree of variance between individual cases.
Cyber-stalking, is one of the latest variants. In these scenarios, the
stalker will utilise electronic mediums such as the Internet to pursue,
harass, and intimidate another. The individuals may have had some prior
relationship, and this group does, in fact, comprise the largest category
of stalkers, though there are almost the same number of cases in which the
offender and victim have had no prior contact.

Jurisdictions across the globe are now beginning to take legal action
against stalking behaviour, recognising it as a public problem which merits
attention. The effects of stalking upon an individual may include
behavioural, psychological and social aspects. Specific risks to the victim
include a loss of personal safety, the loss of a job, sleeplessness, and a
change in work or social habits. These effects have the potential to
produce a large drain on both criminal justice resources and the health
care system, and it is therefore in the best interests of the authorities
to take swift action when cases are presented to them.

While the reader should not curtail on-line activities because of the
threat posed by the Cyberstalker, a little bit of caution will help to keep
the identity of the user as anonymous as possible. Should one become the
target of unwanted attention, one should seek the help of authorities as
soon as is possible, documenting all occurrences.

While the behaviour of stalking is not new, its recognition in legal and
academic circles is still in its infancy. Only through the continued study
of the problem will we be better equipped to deal with particular cases
once they are presented. Through the continued study and exposure of
stalking (and by extension, Cyberstalking), will investigators and
clinicians be better prepared to deal with its consequences and effects.


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