Internet bullying on the rise
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Cyber attackers turning to social-networking sites
"Debbie Lee has realized her life is a lie and that her only friend is the handgun in the back of my closet," read one August Facebook post. There were dozens of others posted over nearly three hours.
Several friends who logged onto the social-networking site frantically dialed 911. Surprise police were called to her home, knocked on her door and peered through windows in an attempt to prevent her suicide.
But Lee wasn't home. The Surprise woman was camping with a church group.
After talking to Lee and others, authorities concluded that someone hacked into Lee's Facebook and MSN e-mail accounts and sent the disturbing messages. Lee was left to wonder who wanted to frighten her and her loved ones.
What happened to Lee was unusual, but law-enforcement and cyber-crime experts say that crimes and cruel hoaxes are rising on social networks as they become increasingly popular.
It's difficult to quantify the growth of online-bullying cases. Still, law-enforcement agencies worldwide have said they're seeing an uptick in cyber-harassment cases involving social-networking sites, said Philip Rosenthal, a New York-based computer-crime expert with 20 years of law-enforcement experience.
"Go to Google and type in 'cyber bullying' or 'cyber suicide,' and you're going to be shocked with what you see," Rosenthal said. "It's growing every day."
Previously, threatening calls or letters incited fear and 911 calls. Now, those who seek revenge or to intimidate often use social-networking sites.
Many times, perpetrators pose as their victims online or make disturbing changes to others' social-networking accounts, said Detective James Holmes, a Phoenix police spokesman.
In one case, a 16-year-old from upstate New York was arrested after adding racist images to a friend's MySpace account when the two had a disagreement, Rosenthal said.
The new online tactics and tools are creating dilemmas for law enforcement. The real victims often are too embarrassed to report the crime. Investigators may not be familiar with the intricacies of constantly changing technologies.
Sometimes it's difficult to determine the identity of the hacker. And laws are sometimes murky.
Police initially couldn't find a law that applied to the Surprise case.
Weeks after the Aug. 21 hacking, Lee learned that the Surprise Police Department's investigation had stalled.
The case was ruled inactive when police were unable to find an Arizona law that would give them enforcement powers against the Facebook hackers, said Sgt. Mark Ortega, a Surprise police spokesman.
Lee, whose son was the first Navy SEAL killed in the Iraq war, remained rattled. As the founder of the non-profit organization America's Mighty Warriors and an outspoken supporter of the troops, she had hundreds of military and government contacts before being forced to disable her e-mail account. Two months later, she doesn't have most of her e-mail addresses back, and people still ask her about the Facebook postings.
"When I hear the word Facebook now, I get a sick feeling in my stomach," she said. "I can't even comprehend why someone would do (this)."
In mid-October, police decided after further review that an Arizona computer tampering statute applied. A detective assigned to the case planned to subpoena Facebook for records, Ortega said.
A Facebook representative said late last week that Surprise police had yet to contact the social-networking site about the case.
The investigation hinges on the idea that someone recklessly used a computer, computer system or network, engaged in conduct directed at another person and caused alarm, torment or distress.
Phoenix police used the same statute recently after someone posted the name, address and phone number of a Phoenix woman on Craigslist, saying she was "looking for a date" and would give massages, Holmes said. The man who posted the information was later charged with computer tampering, a felony.
Local authorities nationwide will continue to expand their use of such laws as social-networking sites thrive. They'll have to be tech savvy to apply them, Rosenthal said.
Protecting yourself from social-network hackers
• Never give out your password. Most sites will not send you an e-mail asking for your password.
• Use virus-protection software.
• If you already have virus-protection software, be sure it is up to date and running properly.
• Don't use automatic password settings. Type in your password each time you log in.
• Use a password with random numbers and symbols, so it's not easy for others to guess.
• If you believe you have been hacked, immediately try to log into the social-networking site. If your password no longer works, contact site administrators.
• Call police if the hacker has threatened you in any way or acted in a way that would do harm toward you.
( Sources: Philip Rosenthal, private cyber-crime investigator; John Iannarella, Phoenix FBI cyber-crime squad supervisor )