Cyber-Extortion Results in Prison
By Net4TV Voice News Staff
Robert Harvey Alexander figured he'd never be caught.
He didn't use his real name, or his real email address.
He logged in at computers at public libraries to send
emails to his targets in which he threatened to destroy
their reputations with online postings if they wouldn't
engage in "cybering" and phone sex with him. He even
taunted his victims that the police would never be able
to find him.
But he didn't count on the FBI, and their increasing
attention to the people who use the anonymity of the
Internet to stalk, harass, and threaten others. Last
November, Alexander was arrested at a computer terminal
in a Tampa public library. When presented with the
evidence that the FBI had collected from recipients'
emails and phone records, he pleaded guilty to six
counts of extortion.
Alexander, 52, also apparently didn't believe that
he'd even be suspected. He was a pillar of the community
and a deacon in Tampa's First Baptist Church. But his
secret hobby was assembling what was termed his "Victims
List," 100 email addresses of high school and college
students across the country. According to the federal
prosecutor in the case, Alexander deliberately targeted
vulnerable young women, many of whom were at college and
away from home for the first time.
Alexander contacted his "victims" and demanded that
the girls have explicit phone or Internet sex
conversation with him, and threatened to ruin their
reputations if they did not comply. In one case, he told
the girl if she didn't go along with him with sex talk
by telephone and computer, he would digitally alter a
photograph of her face, paste it on a nude body, and
post it on the Internet to ruin her reputation.
"I cannot describe the fear and frustration my family
was subjected to," the father told the court. "She was
afraid to leave her own home."
Alexander later apologized to this father and said
that he could understand his anger because he also has a
daughter about the same age. Alexander's lawyer then
asked the judge to impose a lesser sentence, stating
that Alexander suffers from bipolar disorder and
couldn't fully appreciate what he had done.
The judge was having none of it. "You've committed a
despicable crime," said U.S District Judge Stephen
Merryday in the sentencing hearing this week. Merryday
then ruled that the crimes were so morally reprehensible
that Alexander deserved a longer sentence than the
federal sentencing guidelines recommended. The 21-month
sentence handed down was more than double the 10 months
recommended by the sentencing guidelines.
"Cyberstalking" and online defamation have been
growing concerns for the Internet, where the ability to
operate anonymously and the oft-shouted "freedom of
speech" encourages people to believe that they cannot be
held accountable for behaviors that would be considered
crimes or the basis for a lawsuit in the "real
In August 1999, the Attorney General published a Report
on Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement
and Industry described the problem and the need
for more concerted action, and pointed out that many
stalking laws today require a "credible threat" of
violence to be issued. In July 2000, a CyberStalking
Bill was introduced by Sen. Spencer Abraham
(R-MI) that would amend the US Code to expand the
prohibition on stalking, and make cyberstalking a
The Florida case is a milestone, in that the laws
against extortion rather than "stalking" were
successfully applied, and the threat was not of physical
violence but defamation and "ruining your reputation."
The case establishes a precedent which may make it much
easier to prosecute some of the cyberstalking behaviors
that have become all too common in chat rooms,
newsgroups, and email.
Increasingly, companies and business people are
piercing the anonymity of the Internet with subpoenas to
track down and sue posters who defame them on public
A former boxer, Gary Dobry, learned this the hard way
when he posted pseudonymous messages on a stock bulletin
board accusing a business executive of questionable
stock transactions and dealing with "known felons." The
executive filed a "John Doe" suit that allowed him to
issue subpoenas to get Dobry's actual identity, and then
sued him for spreading "false and defamatory
information" about him. Although Dobry claimed that he
had gotten his information from a fellow Internet poster
whom he "mistakenly believed was trustworthy," he was
the one who paid the price: a public apology, and a
settlement that will make him immediately liable for $1
million in damages if he ever posts another word about
the executive or his business.
For More Information
Epidemic of Cyberstalking - Wired
Use Common Sense - Wired
Online Abuse - an organization with resources
and connections for people who are being harassed, and
more information about the Senate bill.
- an Internet safety program and resource against
harassers and stalkers, with special help for protecting