(A version of this piece originally appeared on Backchannel.)
Early one evening last March, my best friend saw my name pop up in a text notification on her phone. The message, which appeared to come from my Gmail account, read: "felt a bit sad today about how I never made any friends at Emory during my time there. Not one. god I'm a loser. all I've got is my hair lol."
She called me as soon as she got home from work. "Are you okay?"
"What? Yeah, everything's fine," I answered.
She told me about the text, but even as she spoke we realized what had happened. "Ugh," I said. "It's Danny." My cyberstalker had struck again, this time with a spot-on impersonation of me and my neuroses.
Danny (not his real name) has stalked and harassed me, online and off, for almost 15 years — more than half my life at this point. He has used a variety of methods to do so —phone, text, email, Facebook and other social media — updating his tactics with every advance in technology. In the past three years he has also sent dozens, possibly hundreds, of defamatory letters, emails, and Facebook and Twitter messages about me to my family, friends, employers, friends' employers, professional organizations, and political offices, including the State Attorney General of New York. (I know because he sent me copies of the letters.)
I was used to ignoring Danny's harassment and advising others to do the same, but this was different, more serious than what I had endured before. It looked like Danny had stolen my identity and was now posing as me to my friends online. Had he hacked my accounts? I was terrified of the havoc he could wreak with my personal information suddenly at his disposal.
I immediately called Apple and started digging through Google's help pages to figure out what had happened. It turned out my accounts were secure and Danny hadn't actually hacked anything. (I changed my passwords anyway.) He was spoofing my email, using a software program that let him impersonate me online. Spoofing is very easy to do, and is often used in phishing scams.
Since he was using a third-party system, Apple couldn't stop him, a rep told me. Neither could Google. If I wanted to end Danny's extended campaign to make my life miserable once and for all, I'd have to figure out how myself.
Danny and I met at camp in 2001, when I was 12 and he was a couple of years older. We became friends and would talk occasionally during the school year. Our conversations frequently involved me reading him excerpts from Cosmopolitan's Guide to Horoscopes, a book I was obsessed with at the time. But soon he was calling practically every day, and I started ignoring his calls, finding it easier to ghost as a self-centered teen than confront him directly. He didn't take the hint, and I eventually blocked his number.
Like everyone in the early aughts, I was a devoted user of AOL Instant Messenger, and at some point I must have given Danny my screen name. We chatted on AIM on and off through high school until I blocked him there too.
When I got a Facebook account in 2006 he found me again and, not wanting to be rude, I accepted his friend request. He often sent me rambling accounts of his day-to-day life. I usually didn't respond, but sometimes I messaged back if I was bored or lonely.
I didn't think much of Danny's behavior until one evening during my sophomore year of college. I was leaving the library when I saw Danny standing outside. He handed me the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers CD (Stadium Arcadium, not great) and asked if we could eat dinner together. I panicked; I hadn't seen Danny since middle school and didn't want to see him now. But I also didn't want to hurt his feelings and felt touched by his gift. I took him to the cafeteria and made awkward conversation until I faked an excuse and left.
After that incident I cut off contact, figuring his fixation would dwindle with time. But his Facebook messages only seemed to increase, an almost daily barrage of friendly if disjointed missives responding to my status updates or providing commentary on his political beliefs, job hunt, and other aspects of his life.
The last time I talked to Danny was in 2012. His messages had ramped up to a maniacal rate — every few hours for about three days straight, unreciprocated, with no end in sight. I caved and sent him a message asking him to please stop messaging me so much or I'd block him. "Ok. good luck on your quest," he wrote back three minutes later. "Huh," I thought. "That was easy." Then he sent three more angry messages in quick succession and I blocked him on Facebook. That's when everything changed.
Instead of his typical ramblings, Danny started calling me names, insulting my "Jewish nose," and making thinly veiled threats to ruin my career. I filtered out his emails and blocked his text messages, but some communications always managed to slip through as Danny contrived new usernames and methods to harass me.
In 2013 he sent my parents a letter detailing his recent activities: "A number of federal government agencies in Washington D.C. and New York City in addition with a number of journalism associations have been contacted to maintain the integrity of internet communication, to uphold ethical journalistic responsibilities, and uphold ethics in the journalism industry," he wrote. "If this incident ruined Roni Jacobson's career in journalism, that is personally not my responsibility and she will have to deal with the consequences from her actions."
Later I got emails from him telling me he had submitted formal complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, as well as both agencies' official responses to him. He also contacted the New York state attorney general.
"You sure did create a bad reputation with federal government; please use words and the Internet responsibly," he wrote in one email to me. "I really fear for you in journalism because you could get in a lot of legal trouble; your reputation is not the best..." he menaced obscurely in another.
I was now fielding multiple inquiries about him each month — from employers, acquaintances, friends, and others. I'd explain the situation and advise them to block and ignore his messages. Most people were understanding, but it was embarrassing to explain, especially to employers I was trying to impress.
Two years passed before I finally decided to take legal action, in late 2014. Maybe it seems weird that I waited so long. Friends and family had been encouraging me to go to the police for years. But by that point I regarded Danny as an annoying fact of life, the hole-dwelling rodent in a decade-plus game of whack-a-mole. And anyway, I didn't want to get Danny in trouble. He obviously had a problem, and would likely be better served by therapy than jail time, I thought.
Besides, I had my doubts about the police. A few months earlier I had watched as a couple of officers successfully dissuaded my neighbor from reporting the physical assault she had just suffered at the hands of her boyfriend. If they wouldn't acknowledge the bruises that covered her arms, neck, and legs, I didn't have much confidence in their ability to see what Danny was doing to me.
But impersonating me, by spoofing my accounts, was too much. Danny had also started harassing my friend Maithri, probably after intuiting our best friend status via social media. He sent spoofed emails calling her "ugly" and "a slut" while pretending to be me or one of our mutual friends. She got messages alerting her he was trying to hack into her Gmail and social media accounts.
Someone, likely Danny, sent her an anonymous email using a service called Guerrillamail with: "Roni Jacobson is not your friend," in the subject line. Body of email: "Who do you think is harassing you on the net?" In another message to Maithri that showed up as a text on her phone apparently sent from my email address, he urged her to "put up more photos on facebook please!!! im bored."
I had to find a way to end this before it escalated yet again.
With Apple and Google unable to help, I started consulting the numerous guides for cyberstalking victims available online. I felt guilty for waiting so long, like I had been lazy — and my friends had suffered because of my inaction. But as I read, I learned that my non-response hadn't been entirely off-base. According to the online guides, like those provided by advocacy groups Working to Halt Abuse Online and the Stalking Resource Center, after clearly telling the cyberstalker or harasser to stop, "do not engage" is rule No. 1.
But if the cyberstalking escalates or persists, the next step is to report the crime to the relevant authorities. Who exactly are those authorities? No one is entirely sure.
Since Danny had used the US Postal Service to harass me over state lines, I figured it was the feds. I filed a complaint with IC3, the FBI's cybercrime reporting center. A few seconds after filing I got an email reading: "This is the only reply you will receive from the IC3. Because we receive thousands of complaints per week, we cannot reply to every complaint received or to every request for updates." In a somewhat ironic turn a couple of weeks later, Danny notified me via email that he had filed an IC3 report against me.
Next up was the police, according to the Department of Justice guide for victims of cyberstalking, which I ended up consulting frequently. A few days after filing with IC3 I gathered together physical copies of some of the letters Danny had sent, including to the New York attorney general, and headed to my local precinct. I had done hours of research in preparation for this moment, and I felt confident as I walked into the building.
"I'm being harassed," I announced to the cop at the window. "And stalked. Mostly online."
Loud snickering from my left. "Is it him?" asked the cop in front of me, flicking his thumb at his colleague giggling in the corner.
I narrowed my eyes at the second cop but didn't say anything. I informed the officer at the window that I would like to file a police report and launched into a short version of the tale, including Danny's latest identity theft. The officer, who looked a little like Terrence Howard and seemed more understanding than his colleague in the corner, stopped me short. "None of what you've described is a crime," he told me.
I was blown away. "None of it?" I asked. "Over the past three years? What about stalking?" I showed him the letters.
"Had you ever been sexually intimate with this guy?" he asked.
I must have looked offended, because he quickly explained that he was only trying to help. "I'm just asking routine questions that will make it possible to file a report. There's just not a crime here," he said again.
"Defamation? Identity fraud?" I tried. He told me no.
"Were you ever afraid for your life?" he asked, still apparently on my side.
"No," I scoffed. After that his whole demeanor changed. When it became apparent I wasn't shaking in my boots, he turned his attention to the line of people building up behind me. I realized my mistake quickly. "I mean, he's definitely threatened my reputation," I offered in a feeble attempt to backtrack. Not good enough.
In the end, I asked him three times if he was sure Danny had to have threatened me physically. He said yes each time. I told him I might have some physically threatening messages but I'd have to look for them, and retreated to an orange plastic chair against the opposite wall. I scrolled through my Facebook messages on my phone, but since I had blocked Danny they were impossible to locate that way.
Meanwhile, as I sat scrolling, several people came up to the reporting window with problems that seemed much more serious and immediate than mine, including a woman who was being followed in real life. I wondered what I was even doing at the precinct, and told the cop I'd have to look for the messages at home and come back. He asked me to return with printouts.
Although I had walked in calm and collected, I left the station feeling silly and close to tears. I felt stupid and ashamed that I'd allowed myself to be pushed around. But after I'd walked a couple of blocks, the lump in my throat exploded in anger. I was being punished for not acting scared enough. But why should I be scared?
Late one night weeks prior, I'd wondered whether Danny might try to find me in person, like that time in college, so I had looked up the psychology of stalkers online. Of the five types of stalkers, Danny seemed to be the kind most likely to persist over years —even decades — but least likely to escalate to violence.
And indeed, when I later sifted through everything I had ever gotten from Danny, I couldn't find any threats of physical violence. It just wasn't his thing — Danny was more into threatening my livelihood. The worst he had ever done was call me a "bitch" two years ago. But while I didn't feel in immediate physical danger, I was emotionally distraught and concerned about Danny's attempts to damage my reputation.
The cop may not have bought my story, but I wasn't convinced that his interpretation of the situation was correct. So I decided to look up the statute. From the New York penal code, cyberstalking:
...is likely to cause such person to reasonably fear that his or her employment, business or career is threatened, where such conduct consists of appearing, telephoning or initiating communication or contact at such person's place of employment or business, and the actor was previously clearly informed to cease that conduct.
I was disappointed, if not surprised, that the police were wrong. Perhaps I was naive. When I called Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, a few days later, I learned that most cyberstalking victims have similar experiences when they go to the police.
"We have this big education deficit in law enforcement," she told me. Local police are not educated or trained on cyberstalking law and often "misunderstand it and are intimidated by the technology."
Even in the rare cases when police recognize that a crime has occurred, officers often don't know how to investigate. Sometimes cops react with "undisguised hostility," says Citron. But most of the time they simply shrug off complaints as "no big deal" or imply that people who report cyberstalking should be flattered by the attention.
But cyberstalking is a big deal, and I'm far from the only victim. A Pew survey from 2014 found that one in four young women report having been stalked online. Men can be victims of cyberstalking too, but the majority of victims are women, who tend to experience "particularly severe" harassment online, according to the survey.
Just about everyone has been name-called or subject to some other sort of verbal abuse online, but women are the predominant targets of sexual harassment and the sustained abuse that constitutes cyberstalking, typically considered the most serious form of internet harassment.
Women have been growing more vocal about the treatment they receive online, in particular about threats of violence. Violinist Mia Matsumiya, for instance, recently documented 10 years' worth of sexual harassment and threats from strangers, mostly via her Instagram.
Cyberstalking is different from the abuse Matsumiya experienced: Instead of one-off trolling comments, cyberstalking describes a pattern of behavior intended to harass and intimidate over an extended period of time. Most cyberstalking victims also know their stalker, who may be anything from an acquaintance to a former romantic partner, and who often sabotages the target's reputation as a way to exert control over the victim.
I checked the DOJ's online resource for cyberstalking victims again. But after "contact the police," the only thing left to do was to "keep a thorough record" of all future communications. Was I just supposed to live with this for the rest of my life, accumulating boxes upon boxes of "thorough records" that no one would ever act on?
With the local police not up to the case, I decided to return to the FBI. But contacting them turned out not to be so easy. After persisting through a chain of holds and transfers, I finally got an email address. Via email, a rep told me that "the FBI doesn't have anything for you on cyberstalking" and directed me to the IC3 annual report. I scanned its pages and found categories for harassment, identity theft, business email compromise, and other behaviors that could conceivably constitute cyberstalking, but not cyberstalking itself. When I asked about this seeming oversight, a rep told me via email a couple of days later: "IC3 does not collect specific statistics on Cyber stalking. Any complaint that we would have, fall under harassment or extortion."
After an extended exchange, I secured a limited interview entirely on the FBI's terms — but the next day the FBI backed out: "Unfortunately, due to resource limitations, we cannot accommodate your request." Further emails went unanswered.
It seemed I had hit another dead end. Frustrated, I called up Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and an expert on cybercrime. She saw my experience as part of a broader pattern in law enforcement.
"There is a very long history of trivializing the harms that are done to women specifically," she said. "That includes everything from domestic assault to rape to stalking."
The first anti-stalking legislation passed in California in 1990, after a series of grisly cases ending in murder raised public awareness about the crime. Within three years all 50 states had anti-stalking laws, and in the early 2000s states began updating their laws to add cyberstalking.
Stalking laws across the US are uneven. New York, where I live, has some of the better anti-stalking legislation in the country. So does Florida. But others offer only piecemeal protections. Federal law under the Violence Against Women Act is more inclusive, and in fact would cover practically every instance of cyberstalking reported, multiple experts told me.
But while the federal cyberstalking law is stronger, "the response isn't any better. In fact, it may be worse," Citron told me during our phone call. Between 2010 and 2013, the FBI prosecuted only 10 cyberstalking cases out of an estimated 2.5 million. Franks explained to me that "many people just don't believe cyberstalking is real." Those who do recognize it tend to blame the victim or offer facile solutions. "You still hear even federal officers say, 'Just close your computer; just get offline.'"
These dismissive attitudes are pervasive throughout all levels of law enforcement. In recognition of this state of affairs, in December the Office on Violence Against Women, a branch of the DOJ, issued a statement calling out gender bias in policing of sexual assault and domestic violence as a serious problem in law enforcement.
Gender bias often manifests as police officers "misclassifying or underreporting crimes," "inappropriately jumping to conclusions and labeling sexual assault cases unfounded," and generally failing to recognize domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.
The DOJ included guidelines for reducing gender bias, the first one being for cops to identify that a problem exists at all. Doing so involves educating officers about the real and quantifiable harm of cyberstalking. For Franks, a big theme is that the "fundamental feeling of security that most people take for granted is taken away." She has spoken to hundreds, maybe thousands, of victims in her research, who describe constant feelings of "having to look over one's shoulder" that keep them from engaging fully in their lives, online or off.
Then there's the often significant financial toll. More than half of stalking victims lost five or more days of work from having to deal with their stalkers' interferences, according to Justice Department statistics. Many cyberstalkers try to commit "economic sabotage" against their target by spamming their boss with negative emails, for example, or posting defamatory statements or sexually explicit photos online, Citron told me.
In a classic case of cyberstalking reported earlier this February, for example, a man created a website for the sole intent of destroying his ex-wife's reputation, alleging that she is a drug addict, child abuser, and white supremacist and telling local news he would only stop when she is dead or "destitute and homeless."
The FBI and Canadian authorities (the ex-husband lives in British Columbia) declined to prosecute the man in part because they decided the woman could not reasonably be afraid for her physical safety, similar to what the police told me.
But why is it necessary for a person to have been afraid for a crime to have occurred? Researchers and advocates have widely challenged the fear requirement as gender-biased, since stalking, predominately a crime against women, is the only crime contingent on the emotional response of the victim.
Many state cyberstalking laws in the US still require that a victim fear her stalker physically. As of its last update in 2013, the federal Violence Against Women Act does not. But despite federal law — and the Office on Violence Against Women's stated mission of eliminating gender bias in law enforcement — the DOJ still uses the same outdated definition of cyberstalking, which, according to its website, stipulates that a victim must fear the perpetrator.
When I called up the DOJ to ask why, I couldn't get a satisfactory response. In an conversation "on background only," an Office on Violence Against Women rep told me, in short, that the office's main objective around stalking and cyberstalking is defining the crime and making sure it is reported and logged accurately.
That seemed as good a segue as any. I asked about the office's response to potential gender bias in its own definition of cyberstalking, as well as the FBI's failure to track cyberstalking incidences. She requested I submit those questions in writing, which I did a couple of hours later. But despite multiple follow-ups I have yet to receive an answer. Getting blown off by the federal government was becoming something of a pattern.
Meanwhile, I was still getting messages from Danny. Like most people who stalk and harass online, he likely has more than one target. Danny has mentioned at least two other women to me over the years, and I suspect he has stalked them too.
Not long ago, my dad called to tell me he had been contacted by a lawyer who represented Danny. The lawyer had apologized for his client's behavior and asked that we notify him if Danny ever attempted to contact me or anyone connected to me in the future.
I emailed the lawyer back, but due to attorney-client privilege he wouldn't reveal the nature of his representation of Danny. I assumed, however, that he was being sued by another victim. Women have had the most success in bringing their tormenters to justice in exactly this way — in court. But in those cases, the threats have tended to be violent. This other victim might have seen a different, more physically threatening side of Danny, or maybe she will help extend cyberstalking case law to nonviolent crimes, too.
Perhaps — no thanks to my own efforts with law enforcement, from local police up to the DOJ — my saga is finally approaching an end. But when will we recognize that fear shouldn't be a prerequisite for justice?
I was never afraid of Danny physically and never will be. That fact does not negate my experience or make his actions any less damaging. I don't need the law questioning whether I feel scared enough. I just need my voice to be heard.
Roni Jacobson is a freelance journalist writing about mental health, psychology, and sex. Find her on Twitter @ronishayne.