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Cyber-Extortion Results in Prison Sentence

By Net4TV Voice News Staff
(October 8, 2000)

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 world."

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 Federal crime.

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 bulletin boards.

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

The Epidemic of Cyberstalking - Wired

Cyberstalked? Use Common Sense - Wired

Women Halting Online Abuse - an organization with resources and connections for people who are being harassed, and more information about the Senate bill.

CyberAngels - an Internet safety program and resource against harassers and stalkers, with special help for protecting your kids.

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