How do you determine whether to take a threat seriously? The key is to look for four factors:
Credibility. This is rather easy to determine. For a threat to be credible, there must be some reasonable expectation that it could be carried out. For example, suppose a woman in Nebraska is on an Internet discussion board and receives a general threat from another user living in Bangkok in the course of a heated debate. In this scenario, the sender very likely has no idea where the recipient lives. Indeed, since many people use screen names on the Internet, the sender may not even know the recipient’s real name, gender, age, or appearance. That means this threat has a very low level of credibility. If, however, the woman in Nebraska receives a threat from the user in Bangkok accompanied with personal information such as her address, place of work, or a photo, that is a very credible threat.
Frequency. Unfortunately, people often make ill-advised comments on the Internet. Often, however, a single hostile comment is just a person reacting too emotionally and too quickly on the Internet. For this reason, this type of comment made in a chat room or on a bulletin board is less of a concern than a pattern of threats over a period of time. Frequently, cyber stalkers escalate their comments and threats over time, gradually building up to point where they will act violently. While there certainly may be cases in which a single threat warrants investigation, as a general rule, isolated threats are of less concern than a pattern of harassment and threats.
Specificity. Specificity refers to how specific the perpetrator is regarding the nature of the threat, the target of the threat, and the means of executing the threat. Of course, it is very important for law-enforcement officers to realize that real threats can sometimes be vague. Put another way, real threats won’t always be specific. But specific threats are usually real. As an example, someone receiving an e-mail saying “You will pay for that” is less of a concern than an e-mail containing a specific threat of a very specific type of violence, such as “I will wait for you after work and shoot you in the head with my 9mm,” along with a photo of the recipient leaving work. (Note that the photo also makes it very credible.) This threat is very specific and should be of much greater concern to law enforcement.
Intensity. This refers to the general tone of the communications, the nature of the language, and the intensity of the threat. Graphic and particularly violent threats should always be taken very seriously by law enforcement. Often, when someone is simply venting or reacting emotionally he or she may make statements that could be considered threatening but in these cases, most people make low-intensity statements, such as threatening to beat someone up. Threats such as these are of less concern than, say, a threat to dismember someone. This is because normal, non-violent people, can lose their temper and want to punch someone in the nose. But normal, non-violent people don’t usually lose their temper and want to cut someone into pieces with a chainsaw. Anytime a threat raised to a level that is beyond what a reasonable person might say, even in a hostile situation, then the threat becomes of greater concern.
Now, all four of these criteria need not be met in order for a cyber-threat to be considered viable. Law-enforcement officers must always rely on their own judgment, and should always err on the side of caution. A particular officer may feel a given threat is very serious even if several of these criteria are not met. That officer should then treat the threat as a serious concern. And if one or more of these criteria are present, the officer should always treat the matter seriously, regardless of his or her personal inclinations. A credible, frequent, specific, and intense threat is very often a prelude to real-world violence.
Other examples of cyber stalking can be less clear. If you request that someone quit e-mailing you, yet they continue to do so, is that a crime? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer on that issue. The truth is, it may or may not be considered a crime, depending on such factors as the content of the e-mails, the frequency, the prior relationship between you and the sender, as well as your jurisdiction. It may be necessary for the recipient in this case to simply add that sender’s e-mail to his or her blocked list.