July 27, 2010 at 9:00 AM ET
"Looking to please and to be pleased," said the ad, posted on Craigslist's Oklahoma area website in the "casual encounters" category on June 25. It detailed various sex acts the poster would voluntarily engage in, much of the explicit language unpublishable here. Then this: "I will do group sex or one on one or with other women. ... My mother might join us. Her name is Pam." At the end, there was a name, a telephone number and a plea for calls.
Pam, however, has no interest in random sex, and neither does her daughter, whose full name and phone number was listed. The ad was posted by an impostor.
Still, the 19-year-old woman found herself on the other end of a series of surprising and disturbing calls. Only after one caller volunteered some information did she learn the harassing calls were coming as a result of a Craigslist ad.With help from Craigslist, Pam -- whose identity msnbc.com has agreed to protect -- was able to get additional details about the ad, including the poster's IP address. It was posted from a Yahoo.com e-mail address using her daughter's real name, but Pam says she was able to link the ad to her daughter's angry ex-boyfriend and his new wife. She marched down to the local sheriff's office with the evidence. Then, she received another shock.
"They said it was a civil matter," she said. "The ad was rude and vulgar in every way you can think of. These two people put my daughter's life in danger by every perv that read that Craigslist ad, and no one seems to care."
The ads, and the indifference, are an increasing problem, says Parry Aftab, an Internet safety expert.
"It's very 'high school' behavior, but the problem is people can get really hurt," she said.
'You don't know how far it will go'
Aftab calls the fake Craigslist ad problem "cyberstalking by proxy," in which angry revenge seekers -- often former lovers -- involve a third party in their attacks.
"The problem is when another person is involved, you don't know how far it will go. It's totally out of control and there's no way you can pull it back," Aftab said. "This is an example we use when people say, 'hey, it's just words,' why we say they are wrong. This is so much more than words. This is lighting a match and throwing it into a dry forest."
Last month in Wyoming, a man was sentenced to 60 years in prison for using a fake Craigslist ad to encourage men to rape his former girlfriend. Jebidiah James Stipe pretended to be the woman and posted an ad saying she wanted someone to break into her house and fulfill a rape fantasy. The attacker, Ty Oliver McDowell, is also serving a 60-year sentence.
Posting someone's phone number on Craigslist is the 21st Century equivalent of the "for a good time" bathroom wall inscriptions, but one that can bring far more serious consequences.
"If you're in a men's bathroom stall that says 'For a good time call Sally,' you know Sally didn't write the ad," Aftab said. "But writing online in the virtual bathroom wall, it can be believable. And 500,000 people can see it all over the world."
In Pam's case, the imposter seemed to be deliberate about the post. The telephone number was spelled out – rather than typed numerically – to evade searches and filters that might have discovered it more quickly.
More personal details shared
But Pam and her daughter say they have more to worry about than a few disturbing phone calls. One of the callers explained under questioning that he had corresponded via e-mail with whomever posted the ad and that the writer told him personal information about the woman, including when she gets out of college classes each night.
"We don't know what else (they) told the others," Pam said. To find out, she'd need copies of the e-mails, but the e-mail provider – Yahoo.com – won't cough them up without a court order delivered by a law enforcement agency. That help, so far, hasn't come.
Nearly 10 years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report saying that a "lack of training" sometimes hindered local law enforcement response to online harassment. The report relayed this story:
"A woman filed a complaint with her local police agency after receiving numerous telephone calls in response to a notice posted on the Web by a man claiming her 9-year-old daughter was available for sex, and providing her home phone number with instructions to call 24 hours a day. The agency's response was that she should change her telephone number," the agency wrote in the report, titled "Stalking and Domestic Violence."
Since then, numerous states have added or amended laws to provide additional prosecutorial tools to law enforcement, and Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 2005.
Still, the problem persists.
Jayne Hitchcock. who runs the group Working to Halt Online Abuse, said that despite laws designed to protect victims and ease prosecution, some law enforcement officials still don't take Internet threats seriously enough.
"She's in fear for her physical safety. The law should be enforced" Hitchcock said of Pam's daughter. She said certain regions of the country, such as Texas and neighboring states, have been slow to recognize the seriousness of the issue." Police there often tell (victims) it's a civil matter. It's ridiculous."
It can also be dangerous. Hitchcock says that stalkers frequently adopt a pattern of escalation. A prank call is followed by a nastier prank call, which is followed by a threatening Internet post and, sometimes, direct violence. That's why it's so important for police to respond quickly to cyberthreats.
"The question is always, what will they do next? If not stopped it probably will escalate," she said.
Aftab's WiredSafety.org Web site connects volunteer counselors with victims who suffer cyberbullying, stalking or other forms of harassment.
"This is what we do more than anything else," she said. "We have a whole stalking and harassment team now."
Part of the problem, she said, is that technology continually makes stalking easier, faster and more anonymous. The explosion of smartphones means would-be harassers can easily post nasty comments and Web ads while sitting at a bar stool.
"The immediacy of mobile technology means people don't have time to calm down. It's causing people to act before they think," she said. "Handheld technology allows you to do something like this while you are drunk at a bar."
Pam and her daughter went to their county courthouse earlier this month and filled out the paperwork necessary to obtain a protective order, including the advertisement as evidence. On July 9, a judge granted the order, meaning the ex-boyfriend and his wife are barred from contact with the family for three years. Then, despite the initial reaction from local law enforcement that this was a dispute best settled in civil court, she took the order to the sheriff's office and convinced a detective to take a closer look at the case. Last week, she said, a sheriff's department investigator told her he'd visited the couple and issued a warning.
Sheriff's Investigator John Bates of the Bryan County (Okla.) Sheriff's Department said he'd taken the complaint, investigated and passed the case on to the district attorney, who is considering pressing charges. When asked if he'd sought a court order for access to Yahoo's e-mail records, he said he "didn't have to," because there was already plenty of evidence against the couple.
"It wasn't a hard case," he said. If charges are filed, they would likely involve misdemeanor for harassment, Bates said. A repeat case of harassment would incur a felony charge.
But the woman still wants to know what information about her was e-mailed to random strangers cruising Craigslist's casual encounters section.
"They could have told him what classes I take, where I'll be. You never know if one of those guys has been going to that school and looking for me," the daughter said.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE CYBERSTALKED
The moment a cyberstalking occurs, it's important to contact law enforcement, say both Aftab and Hitchcock. But know that victims often must be persistent to get attention.
Arriving with detailed printouts and other assembled evidence often helps ease the path to prosecution, Hitchcock said. It's important to make the point that the harassment can mean much more than pixels on a screen.
"(The victim) often has to emphasize, 'I fear for my life,'" she said.
If a police officer is unresponsive, it may be necessary to climb the chain of command – to detective, to police chief, even to the mayor's office. If that doesn't work, Aftab recommends calling the attorney general's office and asking for a victim's advocate or a domestic violence office. Victims can also try calling their local FBI office. They might end up having to contact a lawyer for help.
It's also important to report the abusive ad as soon as possible. Craigslist supplies a simple online form for doing so.
In general, Hitchcock says it's very important not to respond to an abuser's e-mail post. Additional contact seems to encourage more abusive behavior, she said.
"That's when they know they're getting to you," she said.
Aftab said Internet users should be especially vigilant after a bad breakup. She recommends that victims regularly Google their name, phone number, address and other personal information to help spot abusive posts. Google alerts also can help potential victims stay on top of the problem.
And Hitchcock recommends obtaining professional help for dealing with the psychological fallout – such as an increased sense of paranoia.
"After my incident, I ended up seeing a therapist for a year. Talking it out with someone not related to me, getting a different point of view on it, getting the fears out, that's very important," she said. "Your sanity is more important than everything else."
For reference: A state-by-state list of stalking related laws.