Busting A Cyberstalker

Carla Franklin was cyberstalked and bullied for years by a man she briefly dated. She has now become an advocate and expert for online harassment. Host Michel Martin talks with Franklin about her experience and cyberstalking laws. *Advisory: This conversation may not be comfortable for all listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time to go "Behind Closed Doors." That's the part of the program where we talk about issues that many people often keep private. And today, we're talking about how social media and technology can keep us connected, even when we don't want to be. And on the ugly side of that spectrum is cyberharassment.

And we often hear about this in connection with teenagers, whom we may assume don't have the same awareness and self-control as adults. But our next guest is an adult; and her experience went far beyond nasty posts on Facebook, to full-on cyberstalking from a man whom she had only dated casually.

After years of frightening encounters, Carla Franklin finally decided to fight back. And that brought her more unwanted attention, court battles and even, at one point, the loss of her job. But she now says it was worth it, and the experience has turned her into an advocate for stronger protections against online harassment. It was a story she first shared with The Daily Beast. This is probably a good place to say that this might include some language that might not be appropriate for all listeners.

But with that being said, Carla Franklin is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CARLA FRANKLIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Can we just hear from you, how this started. You were casually dating this young man...

FRANKLIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...in 2006. When was the moment you realized that something was really wrong here?

FRANKLIN: At the time, I was a consultant. I traveled a lot. And we went on a few dates over, roughly, a three-month period. I realized that things were kind of crossing the line and getting a little - you know, weird and obsessive, on his part, maybe two months or three months into - like you said - casual dating. He was constantly Googling me, and emailing me, to let me know; he was kind of monitoring my activities, and texting me just - weird texts, and just kind of letting me know he was monitoring me. And at the time, I was dating other people. He was certainly not my boyfriend; I want to be clear. And we had only gone on a couple of dates. And we were having drinks, or something; and he - I went to go to the bathroom, came back and realized that, you know, like, he was angry. He had gone through my cellphone. I left my cellphone.

MARTIN: Red flag right there.

FRANKLIN: Red flag. You know, even if you're dating, I think that's, you know, crossing the line - you know, officially in a relationship. But this is not someone I was in a relationship with.

MARTIN: So you realized that he was inappropriately monitoring you, which...

FRANKLIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...you know, you now say that your story highlights the dangers of politeness, which I'm sure a lot of women can relate to.

FRANKLIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You said it was actually - what was it? - years before you told him, point blank, just to leave you alone.

FRANKLIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, why do you think it took so long?

FRANKLIN: As a professional woman, I felt like, oh, you know, I don't want to be seen as weak. I want to be seen as strong. You know, as a black woman, I don't want to be seen as someone who's argumentative, or making a big thing out of nothing. But it was something. He absolutely crossed the line. You know, I'd realized: I have to stop being nice to him. I have to stop worrying about what he thinks, or what other people think of me, and I have to protect myself.

MARTIN: You discovered, though - quickly - that the law had not really caught up with the technology of cyberharassment.

FRANKLIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Can you just give us, though, an example - for people who aren't really sure what we're talking about - of behavior that people probably would have recognized as harassment, as stalking, if it happened offline - but didn't see it; it was not viewed by the legal system as criminal because it happened online.

FRANKLIN: Sure, sure. He - so for example, I used to model and - I was with a regional modeling agency - and, you know, this individual had actually acquired pictures from my modeling portfolio. And he posted them on YouTube, with the words "whore," with my personal - like, personal identifying information - about me. He also posted things on a website called Reddit. Had he sent me things through the mail, calling me whore; or had he even made a prank phone call, where he was calling me whore, or enlisting other people - for example, the people on Reddit - to do the same; that certainly would have been, easily, a felony. The police would have jumped on it; the FBI would have jumped on it. I talked to, you know, I guess, law enforcement in both of those entities; and it was almost like, well, it's online. It's not really a crime. You know - just turn off your computer.

You know, in some ways, it's worse to be stalked and harassed online because that never goes away. Millions of people see that.

MARTIN: I want to stop you and just ask you, though - for people who still don't quite understand - why this is a big deal.

FRANKLIN: It's a big deal because, you know, I felt unsafe. It's a big deal because typically, with this level, this type of online harassment, it's also followed with things that happen in person. This guy was physically following me home. This guy actually stole, you know, an article of clothing - some underwear, out of my gym bag - one time; and he let me know that he did it. He also spoofed my cellphone, and sent sexually explicit text messages to men that I had never dated, or men that I was, you know, men that I - were friends with; and these are men that went to business school with him, at Wharton. And in an effort to embarrass me, in an effort to have them assault me - in my opinion - he was actually, you know...

MARTIN: Goading people into taking action against you; and also, really trying to just...

FRANKLIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...completely trash your reputation.

FRANKLIN: Yes, trash my reputation.

MARTIN: So even though he was encouraging people to - other people to harass you...

FRANKLIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...that was not...

FRANKLIN: No.

MARTIN: ...against the law? That was not - exhorting people to harass you, and to participate in this kind of behavior - even that did not cross the legal lines?

FRANKLIN: No. I mean, it technically does. And you know, this gets into the - you know, I guess the realm of making law enforcement enforce the laws that are on the books that, you know, protect people in person - by mail and by phone. I'd call the police and they said - one precinct that I called, I talked to someone who said, oh, anything online is not a crime. (LAUGHTER) And you know, it took me going into two precincts till I found a detective who said, Carla, of course this is a crime. He sat down, and he showed me the New York penal law. And he said, we are increasingly getting a number of young people - especially like, college students, college-age adults - who are more, you know, tend to communicate through phone, through the Internet, who are harassing each other this way. And he said, you know, it's a problem. And he said, you go back to your precinct, and you make them take a police report, and then you make a detective do the investigative work. And that's what I did. And it took that level of persistence to get someone at a very - you know, like local level, to pay attention.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My guest is Carla Franklin. She is telling us about her fight against cyberharassment. And again, I want to remind listeners that this might not be a conversation that's appropriate for everybody.

Your case made headlines in 2010, which is one reason why people hearing this story may have some familiarity with it, because you filed suit against Google...

FRANKLIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...to reveal the identity of the person who was posting these videos of you online, with these insulting and offensive comments. And you said you immediately knew that it was this person.

FRANKLIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: What did you hope to accomplish with getting that information? How do you feel that that was helpful?

FRANKLIN: You know, what tends to happen with stalkers and harassers - and other criminals - is that they always deny it; they always lie. That wasn't me. It wasn't me - you know, some other type of liar manipulation. And so I needed to conclusively link this crime that was committed against me, back to his home. And I also want to clarify that he was also kind of stalking me in person, a bit; you know, showing up at events that he knew I was hosting, or would be at, and just staring at me. But when it went online, it just went too far. And so I just hoped to get a restraining order and have the concrete proof that this was him.

And so, you know, in taking Google to court, what I did was - you know, I got a court order. And at the time when it made headlines, you know, I definitely could not understand why this was such a big issue, or why I - I, little old me, would make headlines. But you know, apparently, most people don't do this. The average person doesn't know how to go into a courthouse and get a court order. I didn't, but I was going to find out. I was that determined to make this man leave me alone.

MARTIN: You said that this cost you your job. How did that happen?

FRANKLIN: Well, when I filed the court order against Google, at the time, I was working at a Wall Street consultancy. And what a lot of the financial-services firms tend to do is, they keep alerts on their employees so that they know if you're like - anything is happening in the news, you know, they can be aware. And what happened was, I had - at the time - retained a lawyer to file this court order. I thought it was a subpoena, but it was a court order; and, you know, when you file things civilly, they're public record. And apparently, my getting a court order against Google was interesting to several media outlets in New York, and also the Associated Press. And they started reporting on what was in my case filing. It made news, and so these online alerts started happening within hours of me - my lawyer filing this court order. And my employer became aware of it and literally - I guess, you know, by end of day, I was being called into a conference room and told that the strategy group, at this particular consultancy, was taking a different direction; and they were having to let me go. I found out later, from another employee, that it was the alerts that they kept on me - and that's why they let me go.

MARTIN: Well, I don't understand that. I mean they felt - why? They felt that your being - your participating in this legal action to defend yourself was - what, distracting, or what was the issue? Were they just - cast a negative light on them, or what?

FRANKLIN: I think they're - I mean, I think this is the Wall Street culture. It's very conservative even though they - you know, people do shady things; you know - I - you know, example, the home mortgage crisis. No one wants to be associated with lawsuits or litigation, or anything that's potentially controversial. I assume that it looked controversial even though - you know, it was kind of clear that somebody was doing something weird to me, and I was just asking Google for information.

MARTIN: To defend yourself, sure.

FRANKLIN: To defend myself.

MARTIN: You did manage to get a restraining order against the person who'd been stalking you.

FRANKLIN: Yes.

MARTIN: But he left the country - do I have that right?

FRANKLIN: (LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So where do things stand now?

FRANKLIN: I know. It's so interesting. Um - (LAUGHTER). You know, he left the country. What ended up happening is that the police showed up at his house, and they served him with the order of protection paperwork. And within two weeks, he was on a plane to Brazil. And he sent a lawyer to my order of protection hearing, to have my order of protection dismissed. And because I had my evidence, because I had my arguments drafted well, I was able to successfully, you know - I guess battle this lawyer, who was from a big law firm; and was getting really angry because this non-lawyer, little woman was in court every couple months, and he was not able to berate me - or scare me - into dropping my order of protection.

But yeah, he never showed up in court. He called in a couple of times; and I raised an objection to the judge, who was not - also not very sympathetic, 'cause she didn't understand the whole technology spin. And I said: Judge, I don't know where he is; you know, he should not be allowed to just call in. He's supposed to be here, and you're supposed to see both of us in person, and you're supposed to adjudicate this. And we realized he was calling in from Skype. So, you know, I don't know where he is. I suspect that he's somewhere - he's probably back in the United States, somewhere. But it's fine. I was able to maintain my order of protection for a year and a half; and now, I have a civil suit for damages against him.

MARTIN: Has the harassment stopped?

FRANKLIN: The harassment stopped once he was served by the NYPD, believe it or not. It kind of went on through like, late 2010, early 2011 - as far as information that I'm able to like, find online. His posts to Reddit continued after I got the IP addresses from Google. You know, other things continued. But for the most part, the harassment has stopped. But you know, the problem with crimes like this - like stalking and harassment - is that, you know, people who dedicate this much energy to stalking and harassing you, usually are dangerous; and it's nothing to be played with. And when I - you know, I now work as an advocate, on the side. I'm a management consultant. And I freelance for major, major companies; I do very well for myself now. But on the side, I work as an advocate, and work with victims. And I always tell them, look, you know, if someone is going to invest this much energy into stalking and harassing you, then they're capable of anything.

MARTIN: What can you tell people who might be listening to our conversation; who are saying, I've either experienced this and - or, you know, this has happened to me, and I don't know what to do; what are some of the steps that - is there anything that - particularly people who don't have your level of technical savvy...

FRANKLIN: Right. Right. Yeah.

MARTIN: Right? And diligence about these things.

FRANKLIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: What can they do?

FRANKLIN: So the first thing I would say is, you know, understand that you're not alone, and that you are not crazy, and that you have every right to protect and defend yourself. And in doing so, trust your instincts. When someone crosses the line with you, when they make you feel uncomfortable, trust your gut. And be rude; feel free to be rude. If things escalate, feel free to send a written email to that person letting - telling them to leave you alone, so that you start a document trail showing that you have tried to remedy the situation, and that they are aware that you don't like the behavior. This guy actually went around telling people that this is what we did to each other, that I liked his behavior, that we had a tumultuous relationship - just complete weirdo kind of things.

If things, you know, continue to escalate, subpoena your phone records if, you know, if there - in my case, you know, cases of spoofing. Print out online activity, if there are pictures posted. And then go into the police station, go into your police precinct, and file a police report. You have that right. Even if the police give you pushback, you let them know: I have the right to file a police report, even if it's against an anonymous John Doe. I have this right.

The other thing I would say is, don't retaliate. Keep clean hands. Don't send your brother to beat the person up. Don't, you know, go off and, you know, tell them off. I mean, make sure that if you have to get law enforcement or courts involved, that you don't look like you're crazy also. And that really helped me, that I never retaliated against this guy; and I never did anything, or said anything nasty about him.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. That's very helpful. And I am sorry that this happened.

FRANKLIN: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: I'm very sorry that this happened to you.

FRANKLIN: Thank you. I'm stronger for it.

MARTIN: Are you? I was going to ask, do you think that there's anything - anything has - good has come of this?

FRANKLIN: Oh, yeah. I'm stronger for it and, you know, I feel so good about standing up for myself. You know, my hope is that he just moves on, and perhaps even gets help but at minimum, he leaves me alone. And I think the big thing that's come out of this, for me, is that I realize that there are so many other people who have gone through the same thing, and they kind of have gotten some inspiration from hearing my story, which I didn't realize was so - I don't know, when you're going through something like this, you just - you go through it, and you try to push through it. But I just hope that I'm able - my story inspires others; and that others can take, you know, some wisdom, and move forward in their own pursuits of justice.

MARTIN: Carla Franklin is a freelance management consultant. She's an advocate against cyberharassment. She first shared her story with The Daily Beast; and we are really happy that she was kind enough to come into NPR's bureau in New York, to share her story with us.Carla Franklin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FRANKLIN: Thank you for having me.

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