We tend to see the word “stalker” used in joke form, but the reality of a stalker is less humor and more horror. Last post, we looked at online dating, a hacked online dating company, and even hooking up with hottie strangers, but now let’s look at a cautionary and terrifying tale about a cyberstalker from hell.
When director Michael Gallagher chose to make 4chan / Anonymous the villain in the horror flick Smiley, Gallagher reportedly received so many death threats that the FBI got involved in the bizarre, life-imitates-art situation. This “carefully-executed cyberstalking” case involves Marianne Maddalena, who has worked with master of horror Wes Craven on movies like the Scream franchise; but she has also produced horror flicks like The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left. But just because she worked on horror films does not imply she wanted her life to turn into a horror flick.
In 2010, Maddalena thought she was going insane as her family cut ties with her, her friends knew private details she had said in emails—but not to them—and her boyfriend could tell her things her co-workers said about her. But in 2011, when she received an email reply from an email that she knew she didn’t send, Maddalena hired a computer company to investigate.
The company found eBlaster spy software that records and forwards an “exact copy” of all “emails, chats, instant messages, web sites visited, keystrokes typed, programs launched and files downloaded/uploaded,” online searches, Skype, and basically any user activity as well as capabilities to block access to sites and specific profiles. Although anti-malware programs can find this spyware, the company explains how to exclude it from scans.
Maddalena suspected she was a victim of "electronic domestic violence" by her boyfriend, Derrick John Toole. He was a construction contractor with “many high-profile clients,” according to a lawsuit [pdf] filed in federal court; she had dated Toole on and off since 2007. He installed spyware on her home devices in 2009 and then collected hourly reports on everything she did online.
In 2010, he installed eBlaster on her work computer. Having all her passwords and usernames, he impersonated her in email and texts; he thereby destroyed her relationships with family, friends and co-workers. In 2010, he also installed a GPS tracking device under her vehicle’s rear bumper, so he effectively was tracking her “every keystroke and physical movement” and “haunting” her life.
The spyware was found in January 2011; Maddalena hired an attorney in February and notified the FBI in March. In September, the FBI searched Toole’s house and found a plastic tub “full to the brim” with over 7,000 printed reports on everything she did online since 2009. It was stashed away in a container, so she had never seen it when she visited his home. The FBI said the stolen electronic communications included “email messages, attached documents, bank statements of plaintiff, other of her financial records, and even copies taken through this spyware of her phone bills.”
Toole eventually “pleaded guilty to charges of illegally accessing computer data and unauthorized monitoring of communications. In sentencing him, Superior Court Judge Joseph Brandolino called his behavior ‘sociopathic’."
On Cyb3rcrim3, law professor Susan Brenner explained the legal aspects of the case. In 2013, Maddalena and “co-worker and confidante” Peggy Robinson both filed civil cases in California federal court. Toole had also broken into “Robinson's work offices and installed spyware on her laptop computer, effectively gaining access to her email, Skype, and G–Chat accounts. . . . As he did with Maddalena, Toole printed and stored the entirety of Robinson's electronic communications at his house.”
The judge consolidated the women’s cases into Maddalena v. Toole and ruled in October 2013. Brenner concluded that “Toole won” due to the statutes of limitations on a civil cause of action; the women had waited too long to file in federal court and the only legal route still available is state court. When it comes to the law, everything seems to come down to a test of what is “reasonable.” Although there’s nothing reasonable when it comes to cyberstalking, the judge pointed out that it would have been reasonable to file after hiring legal counsel, or after the FBI got involved.
What happened to the women, what Toole did . . . it’s not rocket science. Marc Beaart, a supervisor in the DA's High Technology Crime Division, told Los Angeles Daily News, “Anyone with reasonable computer skills and a credit card can go online, buy tracking software and figure out how to use it in less than an hour.” Beaart said don’t share your passwords since "your friend today is your enemy tomorrow in a lot of cases."
As Maddalena’s complaint stated, "When our privacy is taken, when our character is sullied by someone acting to be ourselves and when our lives are stolen from us through an internet based hijacking, the core of our very existence is stabbed at its epicenter, and the recovery can take much longer than any serious physical injury."
Because it is so easy to become a target for cyberstalking, Jim Kollar, deputy special agent in charge for the U.S. Secret Service's Los Angeles office, advised using “secure, hard-to-crack passwords for online accounts. Lock your cellphone and computer with passwords or codes, too, and don't share them. After all, it's no good having a secure password if someone has installed a keystroke tracker on your computer.” In Maddalena’s case, “she never locked her computer or her phone before she was victimized.”
For all the great things technology brings us, being connected all the time can also make us more vulnerable. Maddalena compared our dependence on technology to “old sci-fi movies where mysterious forces tracked people via implants in their heads. Now, Maddalena said as she held her iPhone, we pay $500 for that implant.”