DA’s office hosts webinar on cyberstalking

  • FLEITMAN

Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2021 5:01:53 PM

The domestic violence unit of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office hosted a two-hour webinar on Thursday to share with roughly 100 participants the methods used by cyberstalkers and to offer tips on how to stay safe.

The informational webinar was led by national cyberstalking expert Dana Fleitman, from the Washington, D.C.-based Stalking Prevention, Awareness & Resource Center (SPARC). Attendees included representatives from the Salasin Project and the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition (NELCWIT), both based in Greenfield, as well as members of the public. District Attorney David Sullivan and Mary A. Kociela, director of domestic and sexual violence projects at the DA’s office, were also present.

Fleitman explained stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear for the person’s safety or that of others, or suffer substantial emotional distress. Stalking can consist of unwanted contact, impersonating a victim or hacking into someone’s online accounts.

Stalking often co-occurs with physical assault and sexual violence, including rape. She said 20 percent of stalkers use weapons to threaten or harm victims, and 76 percent of intimate partner femicides — the killing of a female romantic partner by a male — included stalking in the year prior. Fleitman quoted Patrick Brady, of the University of West Georgia’s criminology department, as saying, “Stalking is homicide in slow motion.”

Understanding stalking and the fear it instills is all about context, Fleitman said. She shared one story of a woman who was texted a photo of an alligator or crocodile. The law enforcement officer she told about this felt the message was more or less benign until he learned the stalker once told the woman he would kill her and feed her to alligators in Florida. Fleitman mentioned women have been sent flowers — a gesture that seems harmless and sweet — after being told they would be sent flowers on the day they are murdered.

Fleitman also shared data that showed most stalking occurs after a relationship has ended, though it can take place during a relationship as well. She said more than one in six women and one in 17 men will experience stalking in their lifetimes. Signs that someone knows they are being stalked include personality changes, increased security or privacy measures, and isolation or withdrawal from typical activities.

Stalkers can use surveillance, life invasion and intimidation to victimize people. Fleitman said stalkers can hack into or manipulate GPS or smart devices or install cameras to monitor someone’s activity. She said password protection on online accounts can sometimes be moot because a stalker can often easily deduce a password, or an answer to a security question, if he or she was once in a relationship with the victim, which is often the case.

Stalkers can use blackmail, sextortion (sexual exploitation in which abuse of power is the means of coercion) or threats. They can also resort to posting a victim’s private photos or information and spreading rumors, doxing and swatting. Doxing is the online publishing of private or identifying information about a particular person, while swatting is the act of deceivingly sending police or other emergency personnel to a person’s location to startle them and disrupt their life. Fleitman said stalkers can call 911 and claim a particular address is the home of a terrorist or sex trafficking ring.

She suggested people should never post sensitive information online. She also introduced them to online background information databases like FastPeopleSearch.com, TruePeopleSearch.com and PeopleSearchNow.com, and said these sites gather information from voter registrations and other public documents, not necessarily social media pages. Fleitman gave her guests time to search for their identities, and the comments section of the Zoom page was soon filled with people horrified to have found past and current information about them and their loved ones. Fleitman explained most of these sites allow people to manually opt out of having their information online.

She encouraged people to follow SPARC on social media, @FollowUsLegally. She also mentioned more information is available at stalkingawareness.org and she can be reached at dfleitman@stalkingawareness.org with questions.

Reach Domenic Poli at
413-772-0261, ext. 262 or dpoli@recorder.com.


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