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Nov. 16, 2011
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab


Panel offers cyber-stalking, excessive ‘friending’ tips        


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Stalkers often know where you have been, where you are and where you are going, and according to a consensus of panelists participating in Slippery Rock University’s Cybercrimes workshop, you are often the one providing them the information.

           The panelists addressed nearly 75 students, faculty and staff Tuesday to discuss the rising rate of cybercrimes and what steps individuals can take to keep themselves and their possessions safe. Their major tips included turning off geo-positioning devices and limiting one’s exposure on social media sites, including Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

           “We deal with these problems regularly,” said Patti Forester, a University Police officer who served as a panelist.

           “We have some solutions that work in helping reduce cybercrimes such as cyber-stalking or in-person stalking and telephone or email harassment. We urge students who are experiencing problems to report them to us.”

           Forester said when a complaint is received by University Police regarding phone or email harassment officers urge the recipient to forcefully inform that caller to stop the practice either in person or via text. She said if the calls or emails persist, University Police often call the caller to inform them of the potential for criminal action if the harassment does not stop.

           “Usually, in 99 percent of the cases, this stops the practice,” she said, adding, most students who may be involved in such harassment quickly realize their actions are inappropriate and a potential problem should they face criminal charges.

            In cases where the calls or emails do not stop, police can, and do, file criminal charges.

           She said by reporting the problem to police it allows the caller to be aware of their errant behavior and provides them an opportunity to correct it without criminal proceedings.

           In discussing stalking or friends or ex-friends knowing too much about a person’s life and whereabouts, panelists urged participants to consider what they tweeting or posting to online media.

           Thomas Flynn, SRU communication professor, told of recently traveling with students who used every rest stop on the return trip to text messages to friends and post to online media. Such continuous reporting, he said, results in everyone knowing the student’s location and estimated arrival time. Such information, in the wrong hands could lead to problems, he said, including home invasion. “You are broadcasting this information to your network of friends.” He said a potential stalker would not need sophisticated tracking software to obtain the information. “You are providing the information…and they are using it,” he said.

           Other panelists said those posting, tweeting and texting may not know that their information is being shared with others through the “friend-of-a-friend” interface. Panelists urged online media users to limited access to their account to people they actually know.

           Carla Fonner, program coordinator for The Bridge Project in the SRU Women’s center and moderator for the panel, said people should not rely on caller-ID information. She said software now allows callers to hide their real number while showing a different number, possibly a known friend or family member, tricking the person being called into answering. The caller may then use the phone’s geo-positioning capabilities to aid in locating the caller.

           People using email or other electronic devices, including credit cards, were warned to keep all of their passwords secret, even from a boyfriend or girlfriend. Should you break up, panelists warned, that person would have access to information you might not want made public.

           Online media users were cautioned not to post photos online they would not want their mother to see. “Some may think they will post inappropriate photos when they are freshmen and sophomores, then take them down when they near graduation. The photos are there forever,” Flynn said.

           Panelists pointed out that today’s laws cannot keep-up with the speed and development of technology.

           “You have to use a lot of care with today’s smart phones,” said Eric Perry, a graduate assistant in SRU’s nursing department.

           Perry said today’s smart phones can, and routinely do, attach geo-positioning information to such photos. “The safest thing to do, if you don’t want people to know where you are and what you are doing, is to turn this feature off.”

           Flynn said most such devices are factory-set to have such features automatically on. Users must take precautions to turn them off when using the device. “Most of these devices are ‘Opt Out’ and the default settings are set to ‘On,’ because it is in the commercial interest of the manufacturer or provider since they are in business of capturing information. You have to actively go in and turn off such features,” he said.

           “With your Giant Eagle card, your credit cards, your Smartphone, your Facebook account you are giving away tons of information about yourself that you haven’t even thought about whether this information is valuable or not. The question you are now asking is ‘How do I pull back? Stop using that app [application]; you don’t need it,’” Flynn said.

           Students were told software exists that can link to their computer and is often used by businesses and other to track current and potential customers. Others use similar software as stalking technology. Panelists said caution should be used whenever using a home computer that might provide information about the exact whereabouts of the user.

           Perry said that IP addresses assigned when using an online computer are assigned by location rather than randomly, thus a person seeking the location information can easily determine a general location by obtaining the IP address of the computer user. If geo-positioning software is employed, a near-exact location can be found.

           Forester said someone who suspects their computer has been hacked or had spyware software added, or has had software or other technology added that allows their screen or Web visits to be copied, should immediately begin making changes, including reinstalling software or possibly taking the computer to a repair shop for a virus cleaning.

           “Go to the University and ask for a new email account and to the bank for a new account number. You have got to protect yourself,” Forester said. “Technology is moving so fast, it takes forever for laws to come into effect. Take for example the recent approval of no cell phone texting while driving law that will soon take effect. How many years has it been since we realized texting while driving was a problem?” she asked.

           “If laws could be put into effect as quickly as technology advances, I can’t say that would necessarily be a good thing. But you need to reflect and think about it. Laws are supposed to be put in place to help people when they are being treated wrongly, but you don’t want things coming down too fast and finding out they are infringing on your rights.”

           Fonner said the SRU Women’s Center has resources to help those who think they may be the victim of a stalker or cyber bullying and urged those who may be affected to visit the center for further information.

           Flynn said, “Keep in mind that your University email account and the one you will have when you go to work are not private. Your employer, whoever you are working for, will be able to access your email account and view your email anytime. My email account, as an employee of this University, is a public document and can be requested as a public information search at any point in time.”

           He urged those concerned about such issues to open a private email account to use for private correspondence.

           Flynn said those who bounce their SRU email to a private account would not give authorities open access to their private account.

           Several panelists, including Flynn, urged students to be judicious when “friending” someone on Facebook or other social media. He told of a male student in one of his classes who made connections with every female in his class asking to be “friends.” “I urge students to get to know the person before agreeing to share all of their personal information, including where they are going, what they are doing and that kind of thing,” he said.

           Panelists also urged online media users to understand it is OK to “unfriend” people despite the fact that this might seem unsocialable. “When you are uncomfortable with a person in your “Friend” list, remove them and be safe,” Flynn said. 

           Other panelists included Leigh Ann Datt, director of SRU’s Office of Student Conflict and Resolution Services. Jason Braun, director of the SRU Student Counseling Center, Doug Strahler, instructor in the SRU communication department, and Victoria Deavor, a psychology major from Duncansville.