Cyber revenge: Fake dating profiles make woman target of late-night visitors
'He was a very, very abusive man and I've been trying to get away from him for a while,' young mother says
She shudders with fear every time the buzzer in her apartment sounds, terrified the next stranger at the door looking for sex won't take no for an answer.
The young mother believes her ex-boyfriend has set up a series of fake dating profiles under her name, encouraging men to arrive at the apartment for late-night sexual encounters.
"My main concern is my safety, because if he sends the wrong sex-crazed maniac to my house … and he forces his way in, who knows what could happen," said the woman, whom CBC has decided not to name out of concern for her safety.
"I haven't slept in a week," she said.
The woman lives in an apartment in Edmonton's Capilano neighbourhood, and recently a series of strange men have appeared at her home, looking for sex.
In the span of four evenings, more than 30 strangers showed up unannounced.
The incidents have been reported to Edmonton police and are being investigated.
'It could get pretty dangerous'
"They're buzzing and saying that they're here for the meet-ups that they had arranged on Plenty of Fish," the woman said, referring to the online dating site. "But that's a fake profile my ex has set up to get back at me.
"If it was just me, that would be one thing. But it's me and my eight- and nine-year-old kids. That's what makes it even scarier."
So far, none of the men have gained entry to the building. But the unwelcome visits have become so unbearable the woman is moving to a new apartment to try to escape the harassment.
"Thank God, they've all been pretty decent," she said of the strangers who have come to her building.
"I tell them it's a fake profile and the police are coming, and they take off pretty fast. But if a neighbour happens to be coming home when they're at the door and lets them in, it could get pretty dangerous."
The young mother claims her former boyfriend of five years is responsible for the harassment.
"He was a very, very abusive man," she said, "and I've been trying to get away from him for a while."
A few days after she took out an emergency restraining order against him, she said, she got a threatening email. He vowed that if she "didn't do the right thing" he would start sending men to her house.
Within 24 hours, the first stranger appeared at the building's front door.
Her attempts to have the fake profiles removed from the dating website have been unsuccessful. She has called and messaged the company numerous times, she said, but has received no direct response.
In an email, a Plenty of Fish spokesperson told CBC News that they have been contact with the Edmonton woman and all the fake accounts have been deleted.
Plenty of Fish does have a strict anti-harassment policy, and multiple ways for users to report abusive or fraudulent profiles. However, the company spokesperson declined to provide further comment on what processes are in place to prevent fake profiles, or what happens when complaints are flagged to police.
Women disproportionately targeted
Out of frustration with the company, the woman has posted a warning about her experience on a support network page for abused women in Alberta. Since then, she has learned she's not alone.
"There's actually a lot of women saying that their exes have done it to them too, and there's never been a way to get it to stop," she said. "It's scary."
Research indicates that women and girls tend to be the primary targets of some forms of cyber violence.
According to a 2014 poll from the Pew Research Centre, "online violence is especially more pronounced at the intersection of gender and youth." The poll surveyed 2,849 Americans online. It found that, of those surveyed, 26 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 reported they had been stalked online, and at least 25 per cent of the women said they had experienced online sexual harassment.
On the other hand, seven per cent of young men reported they had been stalked, and 13 per cent had experienced online sexual harassment.
The Pew poll had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
'They feel anonymous'
Acting Sgt. Phil Hawkins with the Edmonton police cybercrimes investigation unit said cases where online harassment cross the line into the real world are becoming increasingly common.
"You see it all the time, whether it's bullying or relationships gone bad. The internet just gives people the tools to do these kind of things.
"It's very unfortunate that people, when they use the internet, they feel anonymous. They feel that behind the screen no one knows who they are, and they can get up to things they normally wouldn't."
Hawkins recalls one case where strange men trashed an Edmonton woman's property with spray paint, before propositioning her for sex.
Upon further investigation, police determined that the woman's ex-partner was responsible. Hawkins recalled the ex-partner had posed as the victim online and told men that she "got really turned on when people damaged her stuff, raped her and beat her up."
'You can't hide behind the internet'
Everyone is vulnerable to this kind of abuse, said Hawkins. The best way to protect yourself is by guarding your personal information and reporting online harassment to police and social media sites.
Despite the rise in cyber harassment, Hawkins noted that such cases are relatively easy to prosecute.
Companies like Plenty of Fish are co-operative with police, and perpetrators are easily traced.
Those who believe they are anonymous when committing such crimes are operating under a false sense of security, Hawkins said.
Though the investigation is in its early stages, he has little doubt the person responsible will be caught.
"If it's like the other cases we've had like this, which are basically copy and paste versions of this case, the guy is going to get caught," Hawkins said of the woman's harasser.
"We want to get the message out, you can't hide behind the internet. You leave a digital footprint everywhere you go."