Edmonton

'Control and humiliate': Cyber revenge is a crime, says Alberta expert

Men and women who use the internet to intimidate their former partners can be prosecuted under the criminal code, but only if their victims are vigilant in reporting the crimes, says an Alberta cyber crimes expert.

'It really is harmful and abusive and it has a real chilling effect on the people that are involved'

Edmonton police are investigating after a woman was allegedly harassed by her ex-boyfriend through a series of fake dating profiles. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Men and women who use the internet to intimidate their former partners can be prosecuted under the criminal code, but only if their victims are vigilant in reporting the crimes, says an Alberta cyber crimes expert.

"It really is harmful and abusive and it has a real chilling effect on the people that are involved," said Kathy Macdonald, a cyber safety advocate with 25 years experience in law enforcement. "That's why these kind of incidents really need to be taken seriously."

The Edmonton police cyber crimes unit is investigating after a young mother had more than 30 strange men show up unannounced at her Capilano apartment in the past week looking for sex.

The young woman told CBC News, her spiteful ex-boyfriend created a series of fake Plenty of Fish dating profiles in her name in an attempt lure men to her house for sexual encounters.

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.

'It can really be unnerving'

Fearing for the safety of her two young children, the woman will be moving to a new address in an attempt to escape the unwelcome visitors.

"That's the chilling effect it can have on the person involved," Macdonald said. "If you have strangers coming to your house at all hours of the night … it can really be unnerving.

"And similar to cyberbullying, the targets blame themselves, they're humiliated, embarrassed," she said. "They don't know who to talk to and that's why it's important to get some help."

Acting Sgt. Phil Hawkins with the Edmonton police said their investigation into the harassment case remains in the preliminary stages but odds are, the suspect is "going to get caught." 

The cyber crimes unit has investigated three similar cases so far this year, and charges have been laid or are pending in all three, he said.

Several charges available

Edmonton police does keep statistics on cyber harassment investigations, but tracking those numbers is part of ongoing "internal conversations," said Hawkins.

Hawkins said  the allegations, if proven, would constitute criminal harassment, but any number of charges can be pursued in cases like this, including stalking, intimidation and defamation, Macdonald said.

"It could be criminal harassment. It could be cyber stalking. It could be revenge porn. There are many different crimes that could be involved," she said.

"We're seeing more and more cases of what they're calling revenge porn. People are using images or personal information without people's consent to harm them."

This kind of abuse is becoming commonplace as abusers take advantage of social media sites which are easily accessed and manipulated, Macdonald said.

Accounts can be created in minutes, personal information can be shared in seconds, and once your name or photograph is out there, it can be nearly impossible to erase.

'Don't give up'

Even if the behaviour is not criminal, it can still cause a great deal of emotional anguish for the for the victim, said Macdonald.

"This is more and more common and we're seeing it here in Canada and Alberta," she said. "And really the target in doing this is to control and humiliate and abuse the target."

Macdonald said the investigation of cyber crimes has improved exponentially. Police forces are becoming more technically savvy, and many cities — including Edmonton and Calgary — now have specially trained units dedicated to cyber crime investigations.

However, victims need to be vigilant in reporting the crimes and gathering tangible proof, said Macdonald.

"Don't panic, contact the police, contact the online sites that you know about and tell them that your information needs to be taken down," Macdonald said.  

"Anybody can say anything they want online, whether it's a man or a woman. We all have to be really proactive with our online identity." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

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