Monday, December 06, 2010

New wrinkle - cyber stalking

Cyber stalking plagues sororities

By Bill Kaczor, The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Sorority pledges in Florida and several other states are being harassed online by one or more cyber stalkers who target them with intimate questions, such as the color of their underwear, and then bully them with threats, police said.

Campus police Maj. Jim Russell said Thursday that nine victims have been identified at Florida State University since Aug. 31, but he believes there are more.

"One of the messages we're putting out is don't feel ashamed or embarrassed," Russell said. "If you've communicated with this person, it's time to fight back."

Two sorority women at the University of Florida reported similar online encounters in August and campus police there also are investigating, said Janine Sikes, a spokeswoman for the Gainesville school.

Russell said similar incidents have been occurred at the University of Alabama, Auburn University and Louisiana State University. University of Tennessee police reported two such cases in September.

The stalker or stalkers first ask victims to be friends on Facebook, claiming to be an alumna of their sorority and part of the pledging process, followed by a request for a video chat.

"Then they say, 'Oh, my side of the video camera doesn't work,' " Russell said. "Now you've got a one-way video chat, and as they continue this conversation they get more and more suggestive."

The stalker may ask what kind of bra a victim is wearing or demand she disrobe on camera, Russell said. If she refuses the stalker threatens to post compromising pictures of the victim on Facebook.

The stalker has used fake names that include "Marissa" and "Lexie."

One of the first to complain at Florida State was Ashley Atchison, a freshman from Clay County. She told Jacksonville television stations WJXX and WTLV in a recent interview that "Lexie" said she was being eyed as a future leader by Kappa Delta sorority.

"Every day was a new kind of task," Atchison said. "First day, she asked what color underwear I was wearing. The second and third day they knew the distance between the dorm and KD house."

She eventually withdrew from school and went home but plans to return.

Russell said investigators are working with Internet providers to backtrack e-mail addresses, but that could be a problem because they are easy to fake.

Possible charges include extortion and cyber stalking, but Russell said there may be another problem.

"Say for instance we track a computer to Canada," he said. "What do we do then?"

Sorority pledges tormented by Facebook predator
College coeds are being harassed and threatened by a fraudulent ‘sister’ online

Police say a predator, posing as a sorority sister, targets coeds on Facebook, sexually harassing them and threatening violence and the revelation of personal secrets. NB's Jeff Rossen reports.

FSU student Ashley Atchison and legal analyst Dan Abrams discuss scam where someone is targeting sorority pledges using Facebook



VIEIERA: And now to a new scam targeting college girls on Facebook. We're going to talk to a victim exclusively in just a moment. But first, NBC's Jeff Rossen has details. Jeff, good morning.

JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Hi, Meredith, good morning to you. Police say there are more than a dozen victims so far, all of them college girls pledging sororities. They get a Facebook message from an older sorority sister there to help out. Except it isn't really a sorority sister. In fact, police say it may be a man. What starts as normal conversation usually ends with nude photos, threats of violence and personal secrets revealed.

Things were looking good for Ashley Atchison, kicking off her college experience here at Florida State University, a freshman ready for new classes and new friends. Ashley even got a bid to pledge a popular sorority, Kappa Delta. This was exciting.

Ms. ASHLEY ATCHISON (Sorority Pledge Who Was Tormented Through Facebook):

Right, exactly. This was big.

ROSSEN: But just days later, sitting in her dorm room, Ashley logged into Facebook.

and up popped a chat window from a pretty girl claiming to be a sorority sister at Kappa Delta.

Ms. ATCHISON: The first conversation was about two hours long and very thorough, in depth. They basically said, you know, tell me anything about you, what your personality's like, why you decided to join a sorority, how was your family life, how was high school.

ROSSEN: So you're thinking this is real.

Ms. ATCHISON: Yes, definitely. I had no question in my mind.

ROSSEN: It went on for days. Ashley thought it was all part of pledging. But then the conversation turned.

Ms. ATCHISON: They asked me what color underwear I was wearing, and then they asked me to go even further and ball them up and put them in my mouth.

ROSSEN: They wanted you to take a nude picture of yourself.

Ms. ATCHISON: Yes, they did. They kept reassuring me, you know, this is for the sisterhood.

ROSSEN: Police say Ashley isn't the only victim. The scam artist is hitting several schools in the Southeast, not only FSU, but also the University of Florida, Auburn University and the University of Alabama, and LSU.

Major JIM RUSSELL (Florida State University Police): It could be a man, a woman, it could be kids. It may not even be in this country. Right now this person appears to be targeting, you know, sorority students, but we don't know who this person or persons could be targeting next week.

ROSSEN: Ashley says she never sent nude photos, but police say most of the victims have. After all, the mystery messenger somehow knew where they lived, their class schedules, everything. Seemed like normal hazing. But when Ashley tried to cut off communication, it got even worse.

Ms. ATCHISON: They basically threatened to use my secrets, they threatened me that two girls were outside of my dorm room that could come up and handle me.

ROSSEN: Ashley went straight to police and learned the truth, she was scammed. Scared and vulnerable, Ashley has left school, now living back home with her mom.

Ms. ATCHISON: My biggest fear now is that sitting behind a computer screen, getting nude photos from girls is not going to be enough for them, and they could attack someone physically. Finding out who is behind all this would definitely help me sleep at night.

ROSSEN: The worry right now is police have no real leads at the moment, no idea who's behind these e-mails. They're worried he or she will strike again soon. Experts say, Meredith, this is just another reason to check your privacy settings on all social networking sites, especially Facebook, and only accept friends who you really know in real life, Meredith.

VIEIRA: Absolutely. Jeff Rossen, thank you.

Ashley Atchison is with us exclusively along with NBC's chief legal analyst Dan Abrams.

Good morning to both of you.

Mr. DAN ABRAMS (NBC News Chief Legal Analyst): Good morning.

Ms. ATCHISON: Good morning.

VIEIRA: Ashley, let me start with you. These messages that you got on Facebook begin--in the beginning, innocent enough.

Ms. ATCHISON: Yes. Definitely.

VIEIRA: This person that called himself or herself Lexi was asking you about your family, why you wanted to join a sorority, says that you've been singled out as somebody who may become a leader in the sorority.


VIEIRA: Now, when you look back, are you surprised at how quickly you trusted the stranger?

Ms. ATCHISON: Well, basically the way that they kind of lured me in is they claimed that I was up for the leadership position, and they wanted to know any secrets that might come out in the future. And in that moment you're just thinking, OK, well, if I don't do this, then maybe in my senior year I'm really going to regret passing this opportunity up. So as I said in the clip, these conversations were about two and a half hours long, sometimes 30 minutes, three times a day. So I don't really regret trusting them very quickly.

VIEIRA: Yeah, you had 12 conversations over three days, and they became increasingly more bizarre. You mentioned they asked about the color of your underwear, wanted you to ball it up, put it in your mouth.

Ms. ATCHISON: Right.

VIEIRA: Wanted a nude photo of you, wanted to know if you had a webcam. At what point did you realize there's something really wrong here?

Ms. ATCHISON: Well, basically they had claimed that they had talked to girls that were living in the house, as well as alums that had heard about me through rush week, and then they also claimed that they had contacted my mom. And this was about midnight. So the following day I called my mom and asked her, and that had her all frantic, asking, you know, well, maybe one of my friends was an alum that I didn't know about, and that's kind of whenever I put the pieces in my head and I was like, `Mom, this is bad news.'

VIEIRA: And you went to the campus police at that point.

Ms. ATCHISON: Yes, that was my first step.

VIEIRA: And, Dan, the campus police said that--told her that there were at least nine other girls at her college...

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah.

VIEIRA: ...that were--that had the same thing happen to them, but it would be very hard for them to track down this person. Why?

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. I mean, first of all, the question is was there a crime? And I think under Florida law it's pretty clear that there was. If you look at the statutes under cyberstalking and harassment, either misdemeanor or even a felony here, pretty clear. The problem...

VIEIRA: Because this person was harassing her and threatening her.

Mr. ABRAMS: Right, harassing, cyberstalking, etc.

VIEIRA: Right.

Mr. ABRAMS: So--and repeatedly doing it, willfully, intentionally, all of the key legal terms, this fits. The question is finding the person. Because we always talk about the fact that the Internet can be anonymous. And something like on Facebook pretty easily. The authorities say they contacted Facebook. The problem is what they really are going to need is to find the computers that were actually used to be able to track it back to this person, and Facebook at this point is saying, `Look, we don't keep those kinds of records. We don't have all of the information about exactly which IP address is linked to every e-mail account.'

VIEIRA: So then what do you do? Do you just hope that somehow this person makes a mistake and is...

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I think the fact that this person has so much information about all of these sororities and about all of these women could mean that it's someone on the inside, so to speak. Someone who knows how these organizations work, someone who maybe even works with or near one of these organizations. And I think that could ultimately help them catch him. It's going to involve some sort of slip-up. But I think that in the end, if the authorities stay on this, that they will end up finding the person.

VIEIRA: Yeah, the person knew when there were sorority meetings.


VIEIRA: The person also knew the distance from the sorority house to your dorm...


VIEIRA: ...which is pretty scary stuff. You've left the school, you're coming back next semester, right?

Ms. ATCHISON: Yes, thank goodness.

VIEIRA: So what advice would you give to other young women to prevent this from happening to them?

Ms. ATCHISON: I mean, definitely keep your guard up and realize that there are scary predators out there. But I just hope these girls don't find shame within themselves and realize that the shame needs to be taken and looked at for the person behind the computer screen because this is awful. And if it was something to be shameful for, then it wouldn't be spreading across the country the way it is. And really, just reach out to the campus police, and if they're feeling any symptoms of depression or anything, please go out to the counseling center.

VIEIRA: Yeah. And I know that just a few weeks ago you found out that your face is on the Internet, somebody's put your face up in an effort to recruit friends.

Ms. ATCHISON: Yes, under the name of Chelsea Matin, using my profile picture. And that's really whenever the story took a negative turn that made me realize this is way bigger than I ever thought.


Mr. ABRAMS: And that's a big problem is that people are using other people's pictures. And this is...

VIEIRA: And that's not necessarily illegal.

Mr. ABRAMS: Probably something where they could certainly get you to take it down. If you find out who's doing it, there's no question you can get the person to take it down.


Mr. ABRAMS: But when it comes to actually committing a crime, probably not, depending on what you're doing with it.

VIEIRA: Yeah. Ashley, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ATCHISON: Thank you.

VIEIRA: I wish you the very best.

Ms. ATCHISON: Thank you very much.

VIEIRA: Dan, thank you as well.

Mr. ABRAMS: Meredith, good to see you.

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