Be wary of your e-mail admirer

Cyber stalking by e-mail is a growing problem as wierdos from around the world go online.

Tales of office romance taking off via e-mail and love on the Internet are commonplace, but there is a downside to electronic communication. There is an insidious tendency already causing a backlash in America, which people in the UK are only just waking up to: known as spam (unwanted junk e-mail), flame-mail (e-mail bullying) and now cyber-stalking.

For Lucy, 25, it all started just after Valentine's Day when she received a phone call claiming to be from the "Electronic Valentine's Service" with the message: "I've only got eyes for you."

At first she assumed it was a friend having a joke but, a few phone calls later, "it was blindingly obvious my friends knew nothing about it". The messages, intriguingly, were from a total stranger.

"It was very flattering," she admits. "And I did play along at the beginning. I was very excited about it. I even thought `God, it might be someone really nice'."

Before she knew it, Lucy's secret admirer had set up an anonymous e-mail address and tracked down her office e-mail address, and the messages started flying. The e-mails she received were laden with cryptic clues about who the man really was, and where he worked, and a flirty game of questions and answers soon took hold. Mr X, as he sometimes called himself, maintained that he was acting on behalf of someone else, and used a number of red- herring aliases to throw Lucy off his scent.

When she asked why he had decided to contact her, he said: "I was in a Valentine's Day mood, I was feeling frivolous. From what I'd seen, you appeared to be a bouncy, bubbly, smiley person, the type I'd like to know... contact was a challenge." He asked her what she wore "when alone in bed", and promptly sent her a baggy T-shirt.

He knew where she worked and where she went for lunch, but when the information he had on her became too personal she began to get worried. "He had found out my mother's name, and had watched me walk the dogs on the beach on my own. He knew the dogs' names, and had worked out where I lived. He had even been to the gym where I'm a member, as he said, `I saw you last night, and I like the blue swimming-costume'. It was getting creepy."

Some days Lucy would receive up to five or six e-mails, and if she didn't reply he would e-mail her: "Are you there? Anybody there?", and then "5", "4", "3", and so on, in an effort to get her to answer him.

"At this point I didn't know who he was, what he looked like, or if, when I went for lunch, he was behind me or not."

Given the clues that he had given her, Lucy managed to track down Mr X, who, it turned out, worked in an office opposite her own office window. And once she knew who he was she felt "frantic about knowing what he looked like" and determined to confront him.

"I sent him an e-mail saying `as soon as you get this why not call me'." And, sitting with her back to the window, she set up a number of mirrors so that she could tell who he was when he picked up the phone.

Having identified him, she confronted him in the lobby of his building. The person she met was a "shifty-looking" 50-year-old man, who wouldn't meet her eye, and still maintained he was the go-between acting on someone else's behalf. Lucy found the meeting very disturbing. In her lunch break she went to the police with all her evidence, and the next morning she received a bunch of flowers with the message: "It has been a good game, but now it's the end."

The e-mails have all but stopped, so Lucy has decided not to take further action, other than to keep her office blinds closed at all times.

Victim Support has had a lot of experience of stalker cases. "It is all to do with mind games and creating fear and mental intimidation," says a spokesperson. "It is intended to make the other person feel weak. The e-mail is just another tool to do that, and it is anonymous.

"With e-mails you never know how far or how close your tormentor is; they could be in the same office or across the country and, as the victim, you're just left waiting to see what's going to happen, and when."

Thanks to the Protection from Harassment Act, which came into force in June 1997, victims no longer have to endure harassment, as the act has made stalking by someone unknown to the victim a criminal act. Causing fear of violence carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine, while causing harassment carries the threat of six months in prison, and/or a pounds 5,000 fine.

However, a spokesman for Scotland Yard admitted that if the unwanted attention came from abroad, via the Internet for example, there would be little the law could do.

Patrick, 26, had to call in a lawyer when an innocent exchange over the Net went badly wrong. "My flatmate and I came back from the pub one night, we'd had a bit to drink and started playing on the Internet. We went into one of the chat rooms and met a young lady from Kentucky who said her husband beat her up."

Patrick left the room for five minutes and his friend gave the woman his address. Within days, Ralph Lauren shirts and long, hand-written, perfumed letters started arriving at his flat. "She said she was going to come to England to get married to me and have my children. At first it was quite funny. She also told me that she had inherited a farm in Kentucky, and was I going to move out to Kentucky with her?"

Patrick's admirer started sending photographs of herself with progressively fewer clothes on, until she was naked, and continued to tell him all about her life and her marriage problems. Over a six-month period he received 40 letters, which he never answered. "Then I got a letter saying she was divorcing the guy, and I was going to be named in a divorce case in Kentucky. I panicked at that point. I was really scared that she was going to turn up in London."

Patrick, who works in a bank, decided things had got out of hand and called in a lawyer to ask her to leave him alone. He received only one letter after that, saying, "I knew you would forget me". He has decided to steer clear of chat rooms in future.

Computer communication is, in the main, harmless, but its anonymity provides the perfect cover for those wanting to harass others and, in a sinister twist, people can and do disguise their addresses, or use other people's PCs to protect their identity further.

"You can be anything. You can pretend to be any sex, any age. You can lie about what you look like, or anything. It gives complete anonymity," says a spokesperson for Novell, a software company that has carried out research into spamming and cyber-stalking.

"It is important to keep your address to yourself. Don't give it to chat groups. Once it's on the Internet, you're open to spam, and open to cyber- stalking."

Debbie, 28, who works from home as a market researcher, regularly gave out her e-mail address on the Internet when she first went freelance, and made a lot of contacts. "One was very friendly and I thought, `I don't want to be rude', so I replied. He seemed okay at first, but became strange and obsessive."

If Debbie failed to give an immediate response to his messages, he would complain: "Why haven't you replied to my e-mail today? Where have you been?"

For the next six months, Debbie found herself bombarded with e-mails that became increasingly offensive and obscene. She tried to reason with her antagonist, but once he realised she was upset he simply stepped up his attack.

"The messages got personal, pornographic, and also violent, which was very intimidating."

The cyber-stalker used a number of PCs, or would mail her from a cyber- cafe to give the appearance, at first glance, of being a legitimate client. Generally, the messages took the form of old-fashioned dirty phone calls, with questions about her underwear and various obscene sexual propositions.

"If I had been working in an office, I could have gone home and left it behind; but my office is in my house, so it is very personal. You feel you've been violated, that they have got right into your house. It's as if they've got a direct line to you, and you can't help wondering if they somehow know your address."

In the end, Debbie hit back with a "very strongly worded e-mail", threatening to call in the police and "sue the pants" off her stalker, which seemed to do the trick.

"You have to remember," she points out with hindsight, "that there are a lot of weirdos out there; and with the Internet you get access to all of them, all over the world."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness