A man too unnerved to share his name is desperate to find out the identity of the stalker behind alarming text messages sent to his cellphone daily.
The messages are threatening, insinuating he should fear for his life, and contain information personal enough to make him afraid, but vague enough to leave him mystified about who is behind them.
Police officers told him they couldn’t do anything to investigate the messages, since they were sent through an encrypted messaging platform and that nothing illegal had gone on yet to bring criminal charges.
Of course, charges are more serious if an online threat turns into physical violence, but in most states, the threat alone is illegal as well. That includes where this particular victim lives, in Florida.
Is it illegal to post threats online? Is it illegal to send threatening text messages?
Earlier this year, Florida statutes were amended when a new bill was signed into law, adding digital communication methods to the state’s harassment and threat definitions.
Even before 2021, “cyberstalking” and online threats were already illegal in Florida. The state statute describes this as, “Words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose.”
Now though, the law has been reinforced, adding harsher punishment including up to 15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
For anyone who becomes the victim of an online threat, it’s important to know how each state handles cyberstalking and online or digital threats, because laws vary across the country.
In New York, cyberstalking could be prosecuted under the charge of aggravated harassment.
Cyberstalking has been a criminal offense in the state of California for well over two decades. A convicted cyberstalker there could face up to a year in prison on a misdemeanor charge and five years of prison on a felony charge.
Across state lines, federal laws also prohibit online stalking as well. Much like many state laws, the federal government recognizes any message which threatens to kill, injure, or to intimidate as cyberstalking.
It’s no surprise state lawmakers across the country are putting more focus on cybercrimes. The most recent report by the FBI’s Internet Complaint Center (IC3) chronicles a record number of complaints, documenting a large increase since the pandemic first took hold.
Did the pandemic make cyberstalking problem worse?
The report for 2020 logs 20,604 official complaints for harassment and threats. That’s about a 25 percent increase from the year prior, when about 15,000 similar complaints were recorded.
Clearly, if you’ve experienced online or digital harassment, you are not alone.
A recent Pew Research study, released earlier this year, found roughly four-in-ten Americans have experienced online harassment. The report indicated the problem has been growing steadily over the years.
How to protect against cyberstalking
It’s also important to be proactive in order to protect against potential cyberstalkers.
- Set all social media accounts to private and turn off geolocation tagging on posts are important steps.
- It’s also a good idea to avoid posting any photos immediately while out in public. Instead, wait to post photos after you’ve moved on to somewhere else.
- This is also a helpful practice for vacation photos, which you should wait to post after you’ve returned from traveling so anyone with ill intent doesn’t know your whereabouts.
- If you are being cyberstalked, keep a record of all of the threats sent to you, including the original messages and/or screenshots of them, so you can prove to authorities you are a victim.
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