The internet and social media has done everything from giving a voice to the oppressed and inspiring democratic change in totalitarian states, to connecting old friends.
However, these mediums can be used — and abused — by those pursuing more nefarious purposes. In the 21st century, these platforms have digitized crimes from robbery to stalking, forcing lawmakers and law enforcement to open a new front against criminals untethered to geographic locations and hidden behind virtual screens.
Such is true of cyber-stalking — including cases right here in our community.
For the Zezzo family, it was their teenaged daughter who, at the age of just 13, was cyber-stalked by a friend’s father through social media. Despite the stalking being sexual in nature, the then-51-year-old stalker pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor stalking charge and was sentenced to probation and counseling.
Three years later, in 2016, the same stalker began making contact again. Hiding behind social media, the predator created a perverted library of over 15,000 posts, detailing his warped vision to marry her and his insistence that no one would ever stop him from being with her. Thankfully, following a sting operation, local police arrested him and sentenced him to between 18 months and seven years in a state prison.
Stories like this are, unfortunately, too common in this country, and they do not always end with the stalker in custody.
The Office of Women’s Health defines stalking as repeated contact that makes one feel afraid or harassed. Each year this crime affects an estimated 7.5 million people, including many children. Stalking disproportionally impacts women: stalking victims are 50-percent more likely to be female and, according to the CDC, one in six women have experienced some form of stalking during their lives.
In the days before technology, stalking was usually restricted to uninvited visits or gifts; however, the dawn of the internet has provided stalkers with new means to facilitate their harassment. Unfortunately, as the nature of the crime has changed, our laws have failed to keep up with the emergence of “cyberstalking.”
Today, cyberstalking involves the use of the internet, email or other electronic communications (such as social media) to stalk someone. Instances of cyberstalking and internet-related crimes have been rising. While all 50 states have laws designating stalking as a crime, traditional remedies lack the continuity and gravity necessary to fight cyberstalking. The criminal codes among the states respond to cyberstalking in irregular ways — less than a third classify stalking as a felony on the first offense.
A more concerted effort must be made to protect internet users, especially young people, from this expanding crime.
That’s why I’ve introduced legislation inspired by the Zezzo family to combat cyberstalking. My bipartisan Combat Online Predators Act (H.R. 4203) provides enhanced criminal penalties for stalkers by adding up to five years to a sentence if the victim is a minor.
Additionally, it calls on the Department of Justice to evaluate local and state government efforts to combat cyberstalking and determine best practices for law enforcement. The good news is, Congress seems ready to act — the House Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced my bill to the House floor for full consideration and passage.
Cyberstalking is a serious crime that needs to be met with stricter penalties and more cooperation among law enforcement agencies. The Combat Online Predators Act is the first step in making the internet a safer environment for all users, especially young Americans. And this step cannot come soon enough.
As the National Center for Victims of Crime stated in its endorsement of the legislation, “In today’s age where children can be stalked both in person and online, we must ensure that our laws provide real justice for our most vulnerable victims.”