Of Stalking and Online Nightmares

By La Toya L. Barrett

Imagine you met someone new, started dating them for a while, and realized that they were a tad bit disturbed. They became possessive and obsessed with you in a short period of time. After noticing their behavior, you quickly ended the relationship and changed your telephone number. A bit of relief came over you because they didn’t know anything vital about you.

Now imagine the person you dumped is sitting at a computer with a pen and paper. Using only your name, he was able to obtain your address, phone number, and birth date from a website. The website also provided them with a picture of your home, a satellite photo of your neighborhood, and mapquest directions to your door. Another website provided a list of your possible relatives and their ages. Scary isn’t it?

There are several websites, accessible to the public, which provides all of that information for free. Unfortunately, websites such as www.ZabaSearch.com and www.usa-people-search.com are legal sites. These sites combine a mix of public records and generate a list of possible matches. These public records can come from something as simple as a change-of-address form filed at the post office or your voter’s registration form.

We live in a world where you cannot return clothes to a store or enter a building without someone scanning your driver’s license. We live in a world where identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes. We also live in a world where an ex-boyfriend or husband will kill you because they cannot be with you. Murder/Suicides are very common lately. The victims are not always married and have only dated the other person for a short while. Some of the victims are teenagers, which is extremely disturbing. This is why I was very alarmed when I learned about sites like ZabaSearch. It not only places the public at risk for identity theft, it also threatens the safety of women, especially victims of domestic violence and/or stalkers.

I’ve included excerpts from an article written by Catherine Seipp on September 2, 2005 entitled Stalking Made Easy. Although the article was written almost two years ago, the same issues remain:

Stalking Made Easy by Catherine Seipp 9/2/2005 One in 12 women has been stalked at some point in her life… L.A. prosecutor Rhonda Saunders, who helped write the nation’s first anti-stalking law, is best known for convicting the stalkers of Madonna, Steven Spielberg and Gwyneth Paltrow, among others. But, as she noted at a press conference for her Court TV special (“Stalkers in the Shadows”), most of the cases she handles involve ordinary women stalked at home, work or school. Online databases have made the situation worse, she said when I asked about it: “We had a victim, and her stalker was about to get out of prison, and we wanted to know how much info was out there, so we actually paid the $25 fee to go on one of these search engines. She had changed her name, changed her address, changed her job, and this search engine turned up her new name, Social Security number, unlisted phone number, where she lived, the names of her neighbors and the names of her family members. So these search engines are extremely dangerous and stalkers are beginning to learn about them.” “There was some effort, federally, to make these types of things illegal and it just didn’t go through because of constitutional issues,” Saunders added. “It’s something we have to deal with. If you have a magazine subscription, if you have property, if you own a car — all this information winds up on the Internet.”

Recently, I went to update my voter’s registration information at the courthouses where I live. On the form, it asked me for my driver’s license number and/or the last four digits of my social security number. I didn’t include the information. When I handed it to the clerk, she told me I had to include it. I am aware that the information on voter’s registration forms is public information. I was horrified at the thought of the last four digits of my social security number, which is used as identification for almost all credit related business, being on a website somewhere. I simply told the clerk that I would prefer to show my driver’s license, when it is time for me to vote. That option is available, but not well known.

Something has to be done. We are going to have to stop providing information unnecessarily when we can. When we’re asked for our licenses, social security numbers, telephone numbers, and/or addresses, just ask if and why the information is necessary. If you’re moving, try to change your address directly with companies and people who send you mail regularly. Most importantly, if you are dating someone new, be stingy with your personal information. For example, meet them somewhere instead of having them come to your home or job. This is not always foolproof because you may not know the person is disturbed until after you break up with them.

It’s a crazy world for women. The current stalker laws and restraining order process does little to protect us. We are constantly fighting for rights and/or the freedom to just …be. Although these people finder websites can hurt anyone, young and adult females are the ones at risk. Some may call it paranoid, but I am afraid. And I have vowed to find a way to challenge these websites.