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Stalking: A crime that should never be taken lightly

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Stalking is a crime to be punished

Everybody has heard of stalking. You hear about it on the news and read about it in magazines, especially in the celebrity and entertainment reports. But hardly anyone could rattle off a working definition of it, and not enough of us take stalking seriously as a crime we could all become victims of.

What is stalking?

The National Center for Victims of Crime operates a Stalking Resource Center (SRC), which can be accessed through their website at www.ncvc.org/src. They define stalking as "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that places a reasonable person in fear for her or his safety." To grasp the seriousness of this crime, consider that the SRC states that there are 3.4 million people over the age of 18 are stalked each year.

One encounter isn't stalking, but a pattern of following someone, showing up at his or her work, home, classes, favorite coffee shop, etc., can be. Taking and collecting personal items, including mail and garbage, and making repeated, harassing phone calls to someone can be part of a stalker's patterns. Stalking often escalates from shadowing and harassing behavior to personal contact, threats, and violence.

Stalking may be many things and difficult to pin down in one easy definition, but it is always frightening to the victim. Stalking victims have to struggle first with their own self-doubts, since many of the things stalkers do are not, taken singly, illegal or confrontational or violent. Stalking victims have to come to grips with a baffling, slow-motion crime that defies logic. Stalking victims then often have to overcome the disbelief of others, even some in law enforcement. Luckily, awareness in law enforcement is increasing.

Stalking victims have to deal with the terrifying uncertainty of where the pattern might be leading. Since what a stalker does is so hard to understand, it's very unsettling to imagine how or when it will end. And stalking victims are saddled for the rest of their lives with a compromised sense of trust, privacy, and peace of mind, even if their stalkers never lay a hand on them.

Who is the stalker?

Most stalkers are men, and most cases involve men stalking women. Most stalkers are between 18 and 50 years old (a large demographic), and are smarter-than-average. Most are loners and "homebodies," tentative about normal social interactions and intimidated by others. Because they are generally starved, by their own actions or other circumstances, for a real relationship with another human being, any positive attention or encouragement can trigger or intensify an obsession with the person providing it.

In cases where a spurned lover or would-be lover becomes a stalker, he is trying to force into being the relationship he misses or couldn't get. And there are the most disturbed of stalkers, those who are acting on the instructions from voices inside their own heads.

Are you at risk of being stalked?

Celebrities, former lovers, or individuals who have rejected the amorous intentions of a stalker are chosen for obvious reasons. This doesn't mean they could predict that it would happen, but such cases are more easily analyzed because of either the high-profile life of the celebrity victim or the definite break-up or rejection in the past of the victim who has rejected the stalker.

The trick is to recognize stalking when it happens and get help before it can ruin -- or end -- your life. Stalking is often an escalating enterprise. Obsessions can fade, but they can also intensify. If a stalker isn't getting the response, attention, or the relationship he wants, he may resort to breaking into your house, kidnapping you, threatening you with violence, or worse.

Get help immediately if you are being stalked

If you are the victim of a stalker, you must go to the police and to any other authorities who might be able to help, including those at your school or your job. Make sure your family and friends know about what's happening. Document what the stalker does. Avoid direct contact with the stalker.

Depend on the authorities and your support system for help, and do everything you can to protect yourself, including installing an alarm system and avoiding going places alone. It's a dangerous game. But there is now anti-stalking legislation on the books in every state, following California's 1990 example. So a stalker doesn't have to physically harm you to commit a serious crime.

Help yourself

There are other concrete steps you can take, and you can find out more from your local police, from stalking support groups, and from the Stalking Resource Center. Among the good advice offered by the SRC is this, from the Seattle Police Department: If you're being harassed by telephone, rather than disconnecting the number and getting an unlisted one, you should get a second, unlisted line and leave the first one connected to a machine that can gather evidence. A stalker may escalate contact if this mode of contact with his victim -- in this case, the phone -- is no longer available to him.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of thinking that stalking victims have to engage in to endure, end, and survive their experience. It's unfair. But it's a reality. The Stalking Resource Center is available at 1-800-FYI-CALL. If you're being stalked, or know someone who is, please call.

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