Stalked by E-Mail

updated 01/24/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

It started as a series of slightly menacing e-mails. The unknown sender would disclose to Joelle Ligon personal details about her, such as what jobs she had had in college. At first she was puzzled. Then things turned ugly—and terrifying. Ligon began to get calls in the middle of the night from men who claimed to have met her online, where she had supposedly promised to have sex with them. Her computer mailbox filled with pornographic photos. She had a hunch who was tormenting her—an ex-boyfriend. But when she went to the police, she got nowhere. "No one took it seriously," says Ligon, 36, a public relations specialist with the Seattle parks department. "It's like if it happens in cyberspace, it's not necessarily real."

Except, that is, for the people who are targeted. A 2001 Justice Department report estimates that hundreds of thousands of Americans are cyberstalked each year, and anecdotal evidence suggests that as the Web has grown, so has the problem. For example, 46 states have passed laws in the past six years that explicitly make cyberstalking a crime. But only a small fraction of cases are prosecuted, and many stalkers seem to regard their activities as little more than nasty pranks. "There are still those who believe the Internet offers a degree of anonymity that makes it both convenient and safe to commit cyberstalking," says FBI spokesman Paul Bressen. "The feeling is: How serious a crime can I commit without leaving my home?"

As Ligon discovered, the same features that make the Internet so useful also make it a diabolically effective instrument for sowing terror. She started to receive harassing e-mails in 1998 and at first hoped that they would simply stop. But by the summer of 2002, two years after she had moved to Seattle from Virginia with her then-husband, the volume really picked up. "It got so bad that I really couldn't ignore it anymore," she says. Her stalker "started going onto message boards and into chat rooms, pretending to be me, soliciting people in the Seattle area for sex."

The harasser also started bombarding her coworkers with everything from pornography supposedly sent by her to unsigned e-mails accusing her of embezzlement. By using "remailers" (services that launder messages so that they cannot be traced), he managed to conceal his identity. But early on, Ligon had become convinced that the person behind it all was James Murphy, whom she had once dated for seven years. "I just knew in my heart of hearts that it was him from the very beginning," says Ligon. "But I didn't have any proof."

In October 2002 prosecutors whom Ligon had asked to look into her case finally managed to trace a few of the e-mails to Murphy, who was living in South Carolina. The only trouble was that, while officials sensed it was him, there was no law in Washington State against what he was doing. But soon Ligon met Kathryn Warma, a federal prosecutor in Seattle who specializes in computer crimes. "Joelle was angry and scared," says Warma, who decided to come after Murphy with violating federal telephone-harassment laws. After about 15 months of evidence-gathering, he was indicted on 26 counts in April; in July he pleaded guilty to two counts and was given five years' probation. (Ligon has an order of protection against Murphy, who has filed an appeal of the sentence.)

One of the people Ligon turned to during her ordeal was Jayne Hitchcock, the head of an organization called Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), which lobbies for tougher laws and gives victims—the group estimates that two-thirds of them are women—guidance on how to deal with cyberstalking (see boxes). Hitchcock encouraged Ligon to go public with her story, and she ended up testifying to Washington State lawmakers, who in March passed the nation's most recent cyberstalking bill. "It really helps when you put a face to the problem," says Hitchcock, who was herself stalked nearly nine years ago by someone with whom she had gotten into an online dispute. She has also lectured dozens of police agencies on the need to intervene early with stalkers. "Sometimes all it takes is a knock on the door from someone in uniform," she says, "and that nips it in the bud."

All the same, prosecuting cyberstalkers can require considerable effort. Peter Schiffmacher, 38, a marketing representative at a cable company who lives near Buffalo, N.Y., had secretly installed a GPS tracking device on the car of his estranged wife and then used a computer to follow her every move. "She was living in fear. He would tell her all the places she'd been and the time of day," says prosecutor Holly Tucker of the victim. "When I got the case, she was sleeping on a mattress on the floor with her cell phone in her hand." The woman hired a private investigator, who managed to locate the GPS device, which had been hidden away in the dashboard of her car. The stalking charge was only a misdemeanor, but Tucker was determined to send a message. So she mounted an investigation worthy of a murder case, which included calling nine witnesses at Schiffmacher's trial. "I hate to say it got personal," says Tucker, "but when I know someone does something, I want them to be held responsible." Schiffmacher was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail; he remains free on an appeal.

But as Katrina Gordon of Winter Haven, Fla., discovered, there can be a limit to what the best-intentioned authorities can do. Last year Gordon was stalked online by someone who, among other things, posted a proterrorist screed in her name on the bulletin boards of right-wing militias. "People associating me with terrorists could put my life in danger," says Gordon, 33, who traced some of the traffic to a Web site run by an ex-boyfriend. Det. Charlie Gates of the Polk County Sheriff's Office investigated but concluded that without a confession, he couldn't make an airtight case. "Even if you track someone to a computer," he says, "you've still got to put someone at the keyboard."

The harassment has stopped for the time being, but Gordon remains deeply upset. "The laws aren't changing anywhere near as fast as the technology is," she says. "I still don't sleep very well." Ligon knows the feeling. "You are the prey and there's nothing you can do to make it stop," she says. "You just feel so helpless and powerless."

Bill Hewitt.Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles, Lisa Ingrassia in New York City, Jeff Truesdell in Winter Haven, Michelle York in Buffalo and Rose Ellen O'Connor in Washington, D.C.

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