Stalkers’ Strategies

With increasing use of social media, college students -- who are already more likely to be victims of stalking -- are more at risk than ever.

June 6, 2017

AUSTIN, Tex. -- In one stalking case that Detective Mark Kurkowski handled, a stalker sneaked a cell phone into a woman’s car and hard-wired the phone to the engine. When she turned the car on, the phone would charge. It was set to silent and programmed to automatically answer any call -- a simple, now dated flip phone turned into a way to spy on her anytime.

Methods of stalking have trended toward digital in the age of social media. Offenders can now use any number of platforms -- Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat -- to send unwanted messages and more easily ferret out their victims’ locations at any time -- sometimes because those victims have voluntarily shared them online.

What remains consistent: those stalked most often fall into the traditional college age range -- 18 to 24 -- often forcing administrators to work with law enforcement and remain vigilant of tactics, said Kurkowski, who works in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on its domestic violence and abuse response team. He investigates stalking regularly.

He presented last week at the annual conference of college health officials, the American College Health Association, offering to them what he called -- in jest -- a road map of how to stalk someone, so they could recognize the signs. Kurkowski urged collaboration among campus officials, police and advocacy groups to combat the crime better.

At least 7.5 million people are stalked every year, according to the Stalking Resource Center, a branch of the nonprofit National Center for Victims of Crime. Of those victims, the highest rates were among teenagers and those in their early 20s. About 30 out of every 1,000 people ages 18 and 19 were stalked, and 28 of every 1,000 for those 20 to 24, per a U.S. Department of Justice report from 2009. In some instances, stalking serves as a warning sign, preceding a much more serious crime -- a rape or murder.

What complicates matters is how regularly students post to social media, Kurkowski said. During his presentation, he rattled off a number of ways that even less digitally adept people can track someone’s movements.

Both Facebook and Twitter allow posters to tag exactly where they’re writing a status or taking a photo. Digital photographs also contain a code that can show exactly where it was taken -- the exact latitude and longitude. Though some websites strip this information when someone publishes it online -- not all, like Tumblr, the blogging site, do.

Law enforcement agencies can ask for records from these social media giants, though the request usually takes quite a while to process, Kurkowski said.

Foursquare was a popular mobile application several years ago that enabled users to publicly check in  at certain places to earn points. It has since been transformed into a more Yelp-style service, but the same company developed a similar app called Swarm.

Kurkowski said that one stalker was following multiple women and would arrive at bars even before they did -- the women couldn’t figure out how he was accomplishing this until it was pointed out they were broadcasting that information online.

“It’s a hard line of saying when not to use it,” Kurkowski said of social media. He added that recently, his department has discouraged leaving those sites entirely because they are so prevalently used to communicate.

“It’s a matter of using it wisely, and using those security controls on the sites. It depends on the individual. You might not need that, but if you’re experiencing stalking behavior, you might need to re-evaluate on some of those sites making yourself safer.”

But faculty members are not immune, despite the crime’s frequency among the younger generation. Kathleen Washburn, an assistant professor of American literary studies at the University of New Mexico, wrote in an American Association of University Professors publication about her experience being stalked.

Anonymous letters and gifts were sent to her mailbox, sometimes months apart, she said. Washburn was unsure of who was delivering them, but she began encountering the same former student all over campus. The correspondence grew unceasing, though at first her colleagues discounted her concern.

Washburn wrote, “I soon learned that many people do not consider stalking to be a ‘real’ crime and are quick to defend open access to public universities in particular. No one should be profiled as a potential criminal simply for going about his or her daily business; establishing a pattern of harassment involves much more than an eager student’s repeated visits to office hours or the coincidence of overlapping schedules. The legal threshold for stalking usually entails both a ‘course of conduct’ by the perpetrator and a ‘standard of fear’ for the victim. Yet one of my colleagues suggested that giving in to fear was the real problem, a perspective that focuses far too much on the emotional state of the person being targeted. Given the high rate of stalking on campus, concerns about it should never be dismissed. Stalking is not simply a personal matter. It is an issue of campus safety.”

States vary in their definitions of stalking, and often universities can punish the behavior before the legal system, highlighting the importance of an institution’s involvement in such cases, Kurkowski said.

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or simply the Clery Act, requires institutions to report incidents of sexual violence to the federal government, information that is then made publicly available. Stalking was one of the crimes that a 2013 amendment to the law required colleges to track and disclose.

Federal statute also requires colleges and universities give training to incoming students about stalking and where to report it.

Most stalking incidents now involve some form of technology, and in many cases, offenders exploit legal services for their purposes, Kurkowski told the crowd.

Certain applications can change the number that appears on a caller ID to any one the stalker wishes, allowing him or her to mimic a personal number like that of a victim’s mother or father. This is called spoofing -- and stalkers can even pay to have their voices disguised when calling someone else, Kurkowski said.

Though this is rarer, some have been known to attach a GPS device to a victim’s vehicle to monitor their movements, Kurkowski said. Cameras have also shrunk and can be hidden more easily, he said.

In one case, local law enforcement did not believe a victim, a young woman who was being stalked -- a man would enter her house and make cuts on her clothes, on the breast area or rear, Kurkowski said. She set up cameras to try to catch him in the act, however, when she came home one day she found the cameras had been dismantled -- meaning he had already hidden some to watch her.

Though police did not work with the victim in that particular case, campus law enforcement does tend to be more responsive because of requirements of the Clery Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Kurkowski said.

He said he works with academe in his jurisdiction often, and even outside the mandated training, colleges and universities do sponsor events related to stalking. January, for instance, marks Stalking Awareness Month.

“Working together with community members, prosecutors, judges, probation and parole, once we work together is when we can truly protect that victim’s safety, hold our offenders accountable,” Kurkowski said.

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Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

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