“The Troll Patrol:” Protecting yourself against vigilantism
Derek W. Logue
Created: 19 January 2008, Last Update 7 June 2020
Vigilantism is one of the most prevalent concerns among sex offenders, as stories abound regarding the harassment, vigilantism, and even murders of Registered Citizens or those merely accused of sex crimes. Registered Citizens are so reviled in the community, even the accusation that a person is a pedophile, untrue it may be, has led to “vigilantism” or “organized stalking” against the accused. “Vicious lies are circulated throughout the community, and these lies don’t stop. Such lies as the target is a prostitute, a drug user, a drug dealer, has a long criminal record, or the highly destructive favourite (applied to men and women,) the target is a pedophile… ‘vigilante stalking’ is sometimes used because of the false allegations that targets are active criminals.” (Eleanor White, “Organized Stalking- A Taboo Subject.” www.opednews.com, July 4, 2007). Vigilantism is a real threat; however, there are things you can do to protect yourself from being targeted by vigilantes.
Vigilantism at its worst: Murders and Assaults
The most extreme form of vigilante violence is murder. A number of stories have appeared over the years, which solidifies the fear many registrants have about becoming a target by random vigilante thugs:
- SC- July 2013: A husband and wife duo and members of a Skinhead gang, Jeremy and Christine Moody, killed a registrant and his wife after looking them up on the public registry
- WA- June 2012: Patrick Drum killed two registrants and planned to kill two others in Port Angeles WA, using information obtained from the public registry.
- CA- February 2009: Ivan Garcia Oliver murders a neighbor after finding him on the Megan’s Law website.
- ME- April 2006: Stephen Marshall drove from Canada to Maine to murder two registrants after selecting them from the state’s Megan’s Law website.
As of 2012, eAdvocate has documented 432 known murders of registrants or people accused of committing sex crimes. Furthermore, a study by Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury entitled “Collateral Damage: Family Members of Sex Offenders” found that 44% of family members experience threats and harassment, 27% experienced property damage, and 7% were physically assaulted.
My intent here is not to scare you into paranoia, and I hope you never have to use these tips. However, in the event you are harassed or you feel your life is threatened, there are a number of things you can do to minimize your risk of becoming a target; nothing is 100% effective, but following some common sense rules. Home surveillance systems and owning dogs are well known and relatively easy to find options, and can alert you to intruders. Large dogs with a reputation for being guard dogs become visual deterrents to would-be intruders.
In addition, get into the habit of documenting everything. If you have a telephone harasser, it is imperative you discuss your options with your phone company. Unfortunately, most cell phone providers don’t provide services like call blocks, but even if a person calls from an unlisted number, that call can be traced (though it may take a court order to retrieve the information). If your harasser is driving by and shouting obscenities, film him in the act. Most people own cell phones, and virtually all cell phones have some form of recording capabilities.
Online Vigilantes and Trolls
The Internet has become a necessity in today’s culture, but it has also given people the ability to harass and annoy people with a large degree of anonymity. This emboldens people to say and do things they don’t have the guts to do in person. It is easy to get caught in “flame wars” or feel the need to defend yourself from attacks on online message boards. It is a feeling of helpless to see someone insult your personhood, your family, or make up lies about you. Even I get sucked into the occasional flame war.
But should you really be worried that someone going by the screen name “roar4truth” or “Valigator” or some scumbag vigilante group like “No Peace For Predators” is pestering you online? It depends. Many malevolent online entities are merely “trolls,” people who are online just to pick an online fight for fun (or to use Internet slang, “for the lulz”). It is important to separate annoying but relatively harmless trolls from actual cyber-stalkers.
Trolls are named for a fishing technique, not a mythical creature. “The troll posts a message, often in response to an honest question, that is intended to upset, disrupt or simply insult the group” [From Andrew Heenan (2013), “Internet Trolls,“ www.flayme.com/troll/, a now defunct site] The Flayme site finds the following to be characteristics of the cyber-trolls; I adapted the definition specifically for registrants:
- Lack of Imagination: Posts comments just to inflame
- “Pedantic to the extreme:” Rather thorough posts that, while appearing as ludicrous, elicit sympathy and leads to division. A typical tactic is posting threads that simultaneously attack sex offenders as “pedophiles” and paint themselves as a victim of your post.
- False Identity: Will never reveal real names due to cowardice, though these days, security reasons have led many to use pseudonyms. Many cyber-vigilante “non-profit organizations” do not have physical addresses, and they tend to have multiple screen names as well. It begs the question, “If what they do is right in the name of justice and the law, why hide your identity?”
- Cross-posting: Trolls tend to post the exact same post everywhere they go, and tend to post it whether it is relevant or not.
- Off-Topic Posting: Can be genuine errors; “a BRIEF opposite response is simply “netiquette;” if it’s a troll post, you have denied it its reward.” In other words, don’t get goaded into arguing
- Repetition: Trolls tend to repeat the same rhetoric everywhere they go. Trust me, I’ve heard the same sex offender myths repeated by the same few people in every post in the last two months
- Missing The Point: “Trolls rarely answer a direct question- they cannot, if asked to justify their twaddle…” My experience has been either they do not have a source to quote or the post a link to their gossip sites as “evidence”
- Thick or sad: They “rarely make what most people would consider intelligent conversation,” but brag of having a high IQ.
The general consensus is the number one rule to dealing with trolls is simply IGNORE THEM! It is better to not engage them at all, and if you do, keep it brief and to the point. If you counter an “F*** You” with your own “F*** you,” you are merely goading them. If you ignore them, most will give up. Many are merely attention seekers, seeking others who will give them sympathy, justify their actions, and make them feel important. Thus, ignoring them hurts them.
Cyber-stalkers/ Online Vigilantes
The more active you are in sex offender activism, the more likely you will become a target for the myriad of cyber-vigilante organizations online. While this form of cyber-vigilantism is less prevalent, it is more dangerous because it is more intrusive, menacing, and persistent. You become the object of the cyber-stalker’s obsession. Many online vigilantes are members of groups of like-minded individuals or at least share information with one another. The Flayme.com definition is:
- “At its mildest, a stalker is simply a troll that has attached itself to an individual. At worst, boring, at best, flattering. But a stalker can be a serious predator, using the Internet to pursue a real or imagined vendetta, or other perverted agenda. Risk assessment is an essential first step.” (Andrew Heenan, “Internet Stalkers.” www.flayme.com/stalker/, 2007).
According to www.wiredsafety.org/cyberstalking_harassment/definition.html, the traits of a cyberstalker:
- Malice: The desire to hurt you
- Premeditation: The presence of planning or organization
- Repetition: The activity is not a one-time incident
- Distress: The activity causes you fear or distress
- Obsession: Harassment won’t stop, despite repeated warnings
- Vendetta: Wants “revenge” on you
- No Legitimate Purpose: No valid purpose aside from causing you harm
- Personally directed at you
- Disregarding warnings to stop
- Harassment: As defined by state statute
- Threats (www.wiredsafety.org, “Cyber 911 Emergency: Definition,” 2008)
If you have joined any support or legal reformist website, you could become a target of organized groups of online vigilantes at some point. In 2008, when I first wrote this article, most online vigilantes were affiliated with Perverted-Justice (Wikisposure) and Absolute Zero United. When I made the first major revision to this article in 2013, those sites are defunct but replaced with sites like Evil-Unveiled, No Peace For Predators, and individuals like Valerie “Valigator” Parkhurst of Davie, FL. Now, even these groups have been replaced with new groups of online vigilantes. Below are the tactics of a cyber-stalker:
- Publishing your personal info online at their website: This is done primarily to incite members or supporters to harass targets by mail or phone (Julia Scheeres, “They Wanted To Teach Him a Lesson.” www.wired.com, March 19, 2004)
- Hacking into computers, websites, or servers: Done for a variety of reasons, such as to obtain your personal information or to disrupt your activities. Of deeper concern is the possibility of “browser hijacking,” as a few cases have surfaced where computers were allegedly embedded with porn without their knowledge (John Leyden, “Child porn case highlights browser hijack risks.” The Register, UK, May 13, 2004, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/05/13/browser_hijacking_risks/print.html ; see also http://www.wired.com/news/infostructure/0,1377,63391,00.html)
- Impersonation: The creation of identities, screen names, or websites with your name and likeness. For example, a troll targeting me put up an attack blog, posting up personal information obtained from the Ohio Registry, doctoring up the picture from my SO flyer, and using my real name as a screen name.
- Harassment: can be though any media- phone, mail, or e-mails sent either to you directly OR to people you know, I.e., friends, family, co-workers, etc. (Marcell v. Perverted Justice.com, CV-06-0693 [US Dist Ct New Mex., Aug 3, 2006). Thabks to phoner spoofing services, VPNs, and similar serices that mask identity, it is harder to utilize traditionakl tactics to avoid this harassing behavior.
- Mobbing/ ganging up: A favorite tactic of members of stalking groups, members of that group (or perhaps even multiple screen names of one individual) will flood chatrooms, forums, or other places you post your opinions, either in an attempt to drown you out, or to attack you en masse.
- Virtual Stalking: It should come as no surprise, but online stalkers tend to follow you around the Internet. As an example, I used the screen name “fallenone” for many years; in doing so, I made it easy for a cyber-stalker to find me by Googling my screen name, and he would follow behind me and post attack info behind all my posts.
So you may have a cyber stalker, so the question is how do you handle it? The hard part is the nature of the Internet itself, along with a lack of consensus on the seriousness of cyber-terrorism, as evidenced by the recent high profile case of the 13-year-old who committed suicide after she was targeted by a cyber bully. See also the 1999 Report on Cyber Stalking (www.usdoj.gov/criminal/cyber crime/cyber stalking.htm). In short, local law enforcement may lack the capacity (or the desire) to handle Internet-related cases.
Below are a few methods of dealing with cyber-stalkers I have adapted from various sources. It is up to you to decide which method you prefer:
- Ignore them as you would a troll: Most cyber-stalkers are annoying you get a rise out of your reactions, and if you ignore them or at least not directly address them, most will get aggravated and give up. Noted as the best of the approaches by most people, as many cyber-stalkers are motivated similarly to trolls.
- Take a stand: Bring to light their actions. For example, if they post derisive remarks online and they attack you in a later forum, provide a link to the original post and remind them you’re onto them. Use restraint however, as many play the “blame game,” making YOU out to be the aggressor. If you do choose this approach, just be careful with your words. Minimize your personal attacks and communications while maximizing your public response; make interactions impersonal.
- The “Tit for tat” approach: The organized stalkers tend to troll your every post and use everything you say against you, so you should use their techniques. Keep a log of their posts, and if you wish, open up a webpage to showcase their foolishness. Many of them use Google’s free “Blogspot” page, so feel free to do the same. Dig up information on them like they have you.
Below are a few tips you can use when dealing with a cyber-stalker:
- Remove personal info from all public profiles such as Facebook. It amazes me how easy I’ve been able to out many online vigilantes because one day the stalker connected their online vigilante profile to some real life interest. It only takes one mistake for me to make a connection between a fake profile and a real profile. If I can do this rather easily, you can be assured so can the vigilantes (besides, I’ve learned a few techniques from them). Honestly, social media brings out the worst in people, so not having a social media account may be better for your mental health. But if you feel you absolutely MUST have a soial media profile, consider an alias without real-life info.
- Maintain a separate activist account: If you are an activist, then create an activist profile separate from your personal or business accounts. You may also want to consider using an anonymous web browser like Tor, which masks your IP address. Some sophisticated individuals can trace you by IP addresses.
- Watch Your Mouth: Be sure not to give out too much info. Be mindful that people can “out” you by such relatively mundane things as a general interest (Example: If you like Skyline Chili then you probably live in or close to Cincinnati). Giving out TMI like specific birthdays, pictures of yourself or family on Facebook, or specifics when telling your story can reveal your identity. Instead of saying “On January 4th I was arrested in Dayton, Ohio,” you can say, “Last winter I was arrested in Ohio.” Watch out for catchphrases as well. If you say “that’s so radical” a lot, for example (a rarely used term these days unless you still watch TMNT), then a cyber-stalker may be able to figure out who you are by your speech.
- Save all forms of communication, including chatlogs. There are many ways to save information. These days, most web browsers offer some sort of “screenshot” technology; for Firefox I used “Fireshot” and for Google Chrome I use “Webpage Screenshot.” You can also cut-and-paste info to a Word Document or even save the entire webpage to your computer.
- DO NOT believe anyone in these groups are trying to help you. In fact, they are trying to obtain as much information as possible to use against you later or con you out of money. So if a group offers you the opportunity to remove the info from their websites for a price or offers you the chance to plead your case to them, do not accept it.
- If this leads to phone harassment, trace every threatening call, even if you have to pay for it. You could block calls from unlisted numbers, and pressing *59 will keep a log in the phone company computers in case you need to call the police later. Also, in most cases you can record phone conversations; recording laws require only the consent of one party to record a conversation. Thus, you are one of the two parties in a phone conversation. I actually used my camcorder to tape a conversation in a civil case, which helped me win one case. If you own a smartphone, you can also find phone applications (“Apps”) to record phone conversations for free (with ads) or for a small fee to remove ads.
- You can also take legal action- civil or criminal. Civil litigation can be expensive but in many cases, civil litigation may be the only deterrent if the person has any assets.
Real World Vigilantes
Online harassment can be easy to ignore, but harassment from people in your community is a serious issue. There are times a neighbor can engage in a certain activity that is intended as harassment but is allowed by law, such as protesting in front of your house or posting a sign in his/her yard alerting them a registered person lives next door. Many states even allow neighborhood groups to pass out fliers. In Suffolk Co., NY, the victim advocate group “Parents For Megan’s Law” had been paid by the county to conduct compliance checks, a function typically allowed only by the police.
Many state place bold disclaimers stating it is illegal to use information from the registry to engage in harassment or other crimes against registered persons, but rare is the prosecution of the vigilante.
Still, there are ways we can protect ourselves legally since many of us cannot possess firearms? Here are a few suggestions:
- Install cameras/ home security system: Camera equipment has gotten smaller, cheaper, and easier to install. (Even a high end security system can be found for under $300.) Modern technology has advanced to the point where high definition (HD) cameras are small, inexpensive, and most of all, wireless. Many security cameras can connect to a smart phone even away from home. If you have a harassing neighbor, it would be perfect to catch them in the act.
- Get a dog: If you have the space, invest in a large dog. Many people fear guard dogs. At the least, a barking dog will alert you to possible intruders.
- Learn Self-defense: Take up MMA, boxing, or other martial arts courses
- Know the weapons laws in your state: While it is illegal to possess a firearm as a felon, other weapons are allowed or prohibited depending on the state. For example, in Nebraska, a felon cannot possess a firearm, a knife (with a blade 4 inches or longer) or brass knuckles. However, crossbows are legal, as are many kinds of medieval weaponry. A full discussion of this is outside the scope of this guide. However, it should be noted that it is possible to use a firearm in self-defense under specific circumstances. To establish a necessity defense, a defendant must prove that:
- There was a specific threat of significant, imminent danger;
- There was an immediate necessity to act;
- There was no practical alternative to the act;
- The defendant didn’t cause or contribute to the threat;
- He or she acted out of necessity at all times; and
- The harm caused wasn’t greater than the harm prevented.
- Learn the laws regarding self-defense for your state: Each state varies differently on the amount of force you are allowed to use and under which circumstances force can be used. Although some states use a blend of doctrines, self-defense laws generally fall into the following three categories:
- Stand Your Ground: No duty to retreat from the situation before resorting to deadly force; not limited to your home, place of work, etc. These laws are utilized in over half of US States.
- Castle Doctrine: No duty to retreat before using deadly force if you are in your home or yard (some states include a place of work and occupied vehicles)
- Duty to Retreat: Duty to retreat from a threatening situation if you can do so with complete safety.
Scams and Extortion
When you consider the level of desperation the average registrant experiences under persecution, it should be no surprise that a
number of websites and email scams targeting Registered Citizens are out there. This is a bit different than online trolls or stalkers,
because the intent is simply to scam you out of some money or assets, but it is no less aggravating.
Below are some typical scams that are out there on the Internet specifically targeting Registered Citizens. This is by no means
comprehensive, but these examples will give you an idea of what to look for:
- Offendex/ SORArchives (Mugshot Websites Scam): Offendex/ SORArchives is a scam that steals public registry information and, for as much as $699, offers registrants the opportunity to pay to remove the information from their websites. Of course, they simply create new websites and the scam continues some more. Offendex lost a civil suit in 2013 and is now defunct, but similar sites have sprung up over the years
- FBI Alert Virus: The way this scam works is a notice pops up claiming you are locked out of your computer by the “FBI” and accuses you of engaging in some form of online activity. It prompts you to pay to unlock your computer. This, of course, is a scam. The FBI didn’t lock your computer; instead your computer has received a new type of virus called “ransomware.” As the name suggests, the scheme involves locking you out of certain computer functions (holding it as a virtual hostage) until you pay a fee. There are a few incarnations of this virus, and there are a number of sites offering tips on repairing computers infected with this virus online.
- The Classic Scams: These scams are more personal, but your typical scams used on everyone else. A number of individuals are offering services like books claiming to teach registrants to avoid detection legally, how to get off the registry, or claiming to offer information for a price. Granted, there are a number of legitimate services like this website that collects donations for services, so not every website requesting money is a scam. Checking out the website and its owners are key. Another classic phone scam that many registrants are experiencing are people calling and pretending to be registry officials claiming a warrant is out for your arrest that can be cleared up by wiring money to an undisclosed location. Police will never call you to tell you that you have a warrant out for your arrest. If you are unsure, hang up and call your registration office.
Legal issues with cyber stalking
Like most issues concerning the Internet, cyber stalking laws are difficult to enforce, given the anonymity of the Internet and the lack of general knowledge of the very nature of the Internet itself. For example, though many networks and service providers have “Acceptable Use” policies against harassment and stalking, in most instances, it is difficult to get certain activities such as bogus web pages of you removed. For example, consider the following disclaimer from Google’s “Blogspot” service, in which they effectively claim no responsibility :
“We do not remove allegedly defamatory content from www.google.com or any other U.S. dot com domains. US domain sites such as Google.com, Blogger, Page Creator, etc. are sites regulated only by U.S. law. Given this fact, and pursuant to Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, we do not remove allegedly defamatory material from U.S. domains. The only exception to this rule is if the material has been found to be defamatory by a court, as evidenced by a court order. The language of Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act fundamentally states that Internet services like Google.com, Blogger and many of Google’s other services are re-publishers and not the publisher of that content. Therefore, these sites are not held liable for any allegedly defamatory, offensive or harassing content published on the site.” (“Defamation Definition.” www.blogger.com)
If you truly feel threatened by an online stalker, the best course of action (according to both eadvocate and wiredsafety.org) is file a report with local law enforcement. The police may not have the tools to fight the stalker. They don’t have to- The main goal is to subpoena the ISP to provide the information necessary to uncover the identity of the cyber stalker. You might want to contact email@example.com for assistance, though I’m unsure how willing they would assist a sex offender. Eadvocate suggests you DON’T use the “Cyber Tip Line,” because they affiliated with the NCMEC and controversial founder John Walsh. It may be possible to file a complain though the FBI’s Internet Crime Complain Center (IC3) at, http://www.ic3.gov/, though the site seems made for Internet fraud. (eadvocate, “Laws and Contacts to Assist Registrants (former sex offenders) in Filing Complaints of Harassment, Stalking, Cyber-Stalking or Property Damages.” www.sexoffenderresearch.blogspot.com/ Sept. 4, 2007)
Each state has their own laws regarding stalking or harassing communications. Again, www.wiredsafety.org has a list of links to individual laws regarding stalking laws. It is important to check the applicable laws in your state. In Ohio, for example, the requirement is three occurrences are necessary to file a harassing communications complaint. A state-by-state guide to cyber-stalking laws can also be found here:
Police have an obligation to investigate cases of cyber stalking. “It is the policy of the US to ensure vigorous enforcement of federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking in obscenity, stalking, and harassment by means of a computer” (47 USC 230-b-5). You may also wish to consider suing in civil court for damages. Civil court has a lower burden of proof, plus monetary repercussions tend to make most people reconsider their position. Consider the recent case Marcell v. Perverted Justice.com, CV-06-0693 [US Dist Ct New Mex., Aug 3, 2006] (http://www.corrupted-justice.com/article23.html). While even hate organizations like the KKK have constitutional rights of their own, they have limits on their actions.
Essentially you are free to hate all you want but you cannot put your hate into action. Typical civil charges may include charges of slander, defamation of character, harassment, impersonation, libel, and dissemination of personal information. Considering Pee-J’s recent 501[c] 3 status, now there is at least a physical address should your harasser be one of them. Keep in mind, however, the likelihood of winning a defamation suit is slim. The schema for defamation is:
- False and defamatory statement regarding another
- Unprivileged publication of the claim to a third party
- Rising, in the case of matters of public concern, to at least negligence by the publisher, or worse,
- Damages to the subject (Kelly O’ Connell. “Internet Law- Understanding Internet Defamation.” IBLS Internet Law, www.ibls.
com, Oct. 10, 2007)
There have been only a handful of victories regarding Internet defamation:
- Scheff v. Bock, CACE03022837, 17th Judicial (Broward Co. FL 2007): Woman was awarded $11.3 Million in damages, but
the case was won by default as defendant failed to appear in court to challenge it
- Marcell v. Perverted Justice.com, CV-06-0693 [US Dist Ct New Mex., Aug 3, 2006]: Again, won by default
Law Enforcement and the “Public Duty Doctrine”
Of particular concern with Law Enforcement is a general reluctance to assist with your case based on a sex offender label. Police officers are usually covered by the “public duty doctrine,” which basically states the police have an obligation to protect the public rather than any individual. In other words, police have a rather large amount of discretion in deciding to investigate a complaint. However, there are exceptions to this doctrine which can make police officers civilly responsible for failing to protect you as a citizen (Karen J. Kruger, “Duty To All- Duty To No One: Examining the Public Duty Doctrine and Its Exceptions.” The Police Chief, IACP, May 2007, www.policechiefmagazine.org).
- “Danger creation exception: a complainant must show that the government’s action or inaction “affirmatively placed the plaintiff in a position of danger, that is, where state action creates or exposes an individual to a danger which he or she would not have otherwise faced.” Gross negligence does fall under this category.
- “Special-Relationship Exception:” a principle of law that allows for suits based on negligent police protection where the plaintiff can demonstrate that there existed a special relationship between the injured person and the police. Generally, such a relationship will be found “where the government singles out a particular party from the general public and affords that person special treatment.” I’m not fond of calling the relationship between RFSOs and LE “special,” but it may be worth it in cases of gross negligence by the police.
- In most cases, it is best to ignore most Internet trolls and stalkers.
- If you cannot resist the urge to converse with them, be very VERY V-E-R-Y!!!!! careful with your words, since twisting your words is a typical tactic of such individuals.
- Log all instances of harassment of any form for future reference. Use anything– cameras, cell phones, camcorders, whatever you have handy
- DO NOT cooperate or send money to individuals in exchange for getting off a private registry or in exchange for information making outlandish claims or services or to “clear a warrant”. Remember the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
- Local law enforcement agencies are usually the agency you will have to file a charge with, rather than the FBI. HOWEVER, you should also file a complaint with the FBI Cyber-crimes unit at www.ic3.gov.
- Also, a civil case against the harasser may be of help as well.
- Whatever you do, NEVER confront a harasser on the street, and get away from that person should (s)he approach you on the street.
Information sites on stalking and cyber stalking– Please note, these are general information sites on the subject and there is no endorsement nor guarantee of assistance of any kind from of the listed organizations below:
- www.ic3.gov: The FBI Cybercrime reporting site. I know it appears mostly like a place for ID theft, but trust me, if you call the FBI this is where they send you to file a complaint
- www.wiredsafety.org: An organization devoted to stopping cyber-crimes, and may even offer assistance to LE in cyber stalking cases
- www.haltabuse.org/resources/laws/index.shtml: This page has a tab allowing you to look up cyber stalking laws by state
- https://pixelprivacy.com/resources/spying-on-your-cell-phone/ — This 2020 article from Pixel Privacy discusses what to do if you believe your cell phone has been compromised.