When Jill Rowe started receiving threats through a fake social media account, the former Mays Landing resident went to the police on New York’s Long Island.
“They told me there was nothing they could do until something actually happened to me,” she said. “I felt very powerless. I felt like police are a joke and our judicial system failed me.”
Rowe was eventually able to identify the real poster as Craig Wyatt through mutual friends and complained to his mother. Wyatt blocked her the next day, she said.
In September, Wyatt was arrested on multiple counts of harassment and making terroristic threats for allegedly threatening women in 21 different jurisdictions. The 20-year-old Mays Landing man is accused of contacting women through fake social media accounts and telling them their life was in danger if they did not meet with him.
Authorities are continuing to investigate and more victims are coming forward, Hamilton Township police Detective Frank Schalek said. More charges are pending.
Social media are putting users at increased risk from stalkers, and local police agencies have new departments and tools to help protect victims. According to the organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, more than 20,000 cases of cyberstalking are reported every year, and 90 percent of the victims are women.
Local authorities encourage victims who have been stalked or seriously threatened over the Internet to step forward.
William Johnson, chief of detectives for the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, said online incidents are handled no differently than threats via phone, mail or in person.
“These kind of threats need to be taken seriously,” he said. “The problem is the electronic media has exploded, and sometimes it’s tough to keep up. But it still should be investigated. The department owes it to (the public) to assess if it’s a credible threat.”
Cyberthreats have increased largely because they’re faceless, Johnson said.
“I don’t have to confront you to your face to threaten you,” he said. “Now I can be a coward and hide behind an electronic wall.”
Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said the office will investigate incidents with a high level of threat to a person.
“If it comes to the level of a crime, we would investigate it,” he said.
The office has had training from the State Police Cyber Prevention Task Force and the U.S. Secret Service and has built up its investigation techniques over the years, he said.
“Ten years ago, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen,” he said. “Now, it’s very prevalent.”
Authorities can obtain search warrants to get information from social media companies about the accounts and locate the IP addresses the perpetrators used.
Taylor said there was a case of a missing teenager last year who was eventually found in Alabama. She had turned her cellphone off but was checking in on Facebook, and that’s how she was located.
And because the Internet source is important in the investigation, Taylor warns residents with wireless routers to protect them with passwords so others can’t log on through the routers and make threats that would be traced back to the homeowner.
People being targeted can use the courts to protect themselves. Apple Sulit-Peralejo, an attorney at Fox Rothschild in Atlantic City who specializes in family law and domestic-violence victims, said restraining orders can be effective tools to protect people.
State law says parents can receive a restraining order if their child is harassing someone over the Internet, she said.
In cases in which a victim has had a relationship with the harasser, the victim can file a restraining order in civil court, Sulit-Peralejo said. If the level of threat is high, one can also be obtained in criminal court, she said.
And in cases with no prior relationship, a person may be able to get a restraining order if the severity of the threat is high enough, she said.
The orders require the perpetrator to cease contact online, she said.
Sulit-Peralejo said that in some cases, simply notifying the social media organization of the problem or “blocking” the perpetrator can be enough to stop the harassment.
Hamilton police Chief Stacy Tappeiner said people must take steps to protect themselves. He advises people using social media to keep their profiles private so personal information such as phone numbers, addresses and school names are not public.
Often multiple agencies will investigate cyberstalking cases together, and the person making the threats may be doing it to someone else, he said.
Schalek said he finds the biggest targets are girls between 12 and 18 years old. Frequently, the victim may not have profiles protected and will list a home address or phone number. This enables the perpetrator to act like he is friends with the victim and gain that person’s trust.
“People use it to their advantage,” he said. “They think they know who they are and they will feel comfortable telling them more than they should.”
After starting a relationship, Schalek said the next step can be asking the victim to send an incriminating picture and then use it to blackmail them to get them to do something more.
“Once they get one, it gets worse,” he said. “You should never send out a picture that is anything more than what you would want your parents to see.”
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