The college student had endured months of online and cell-phone harassment from her ex-boyfriend. She ignored the barrage of eMails, changed her phone number, and dismantled online profiles to cut him off.
Then one evening, her cell phone signaled a new text message. It was him again.
"You should keep to yourself and stay away from other people," the message said, according to the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety. Her ex had found her photo online and attached it.
As text messaging has boomed in recent years, it has also given rise to so-called "textual harassment." Text messages antagonize recipients in a way that is not easily ignored: Most people are never far from their cell phones, and the gadgets tend to blink and chirp until unopened messages are acknowledged. Adding another sting, the victims are often charged by their cell-phone companies for receiving the messages.
A study of stalking by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released last month confirmed that stalking by texting has become a pervasive problem.
The report found 23 percent of stalking or harassment victims reported in 2006 that the stalker had used some form of cyber stalking, such as cell phone texting or eMail, to harass them. It was the agency’s first measure of the emerging practice, said Katrina Baum, one of the study’s authors.
"Technology has become a quick and easy way for stalkers to monitor and harass their victims," the report said.
And unless calling plans include unlimited texting, recipients are charged an average of 20 cents for each message sent or received, wanted or not.
"I was paying to be harassed, which is a lot of fun," the victimized college student said.
Providers such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint say they are willing to work with customers who are charged for unwanted messages.
Verizon Wireless handled 90 billion text messages in the last quarter of 2008 alone, more than double the number during the same period a year earlier. AT&T customers sent nearly 80 billion texts in the quarter. Sprint customers sent 41 billion in the 3rd quarter of 2008.
Having a device deliver a message tends to embolden people and provides a sense of anonymity, even when the messages can be tracked to a sender, said Jayne Hitchcock, president of the volunteer organization WHOA, Working to Halt Online Abuse.
"They would never do this to someone in person," Hitchcock said, "yet they use the faceless avenue of cell phones, their computers, or home or office phones to perpetrate the harassment."
States have scrambled to react to the new threat. Forty-six states now have anti-stalking laws that refer to electronic forms of communication, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Only four states–Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Washington–explicitly name text messaging, but laws that are less specific may also be applied to text harassment.
Last year in New York’s Kings County Court, a defendant was accused of sending six threatening text messages to a woman during a 17-hour period. The messages said the defendant was outside the woman’s house and that she would end up in the hospital.
The defendant tried to get aggravated harassment charges thrown out by arguing that text messages were not as serious as phone calls or letters and were not covered by state law, but the court disagreed.
Technological developments, "along with their many benefits, bring with them ever greater potential for abuse," the court wrote.
The college student said she walked the rest of the way home that first night her ex texted her with the uncomfortable feeling he might be crouched in the bushes, even though she knew he lived several states away.
The texts and eMails kept coming for more than a year and ranged from innocuous appeals for contact to disturbing insinuations of violence. The contact stopped in December, when the man messaged her that he had found someone else.
Customers who do feel threatened are advised to call law enforcement officials, who can then contact the provider to identify the sender.
A web site sponsored by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, Ad Council, and Office of Violence Against Women offers a textual harassment forum where teenagers and 20-somethings trade advice and experiences with overzealous or unwanted texting.
The site, http://www.thatsnotcool.com, also has eMailable reply "callout cards" that offer a lighter approach to resolve what could be a serious problem, with messages including "You’re much more attractive when you’re not textually harassing me," and "Thanks for helping me exceed my text message limit."
State laws on cyber stalking
Working to Halt Online Abuse