DUNEDIN, Fla. (WFLA) – A cyberstalker allegedly struck from 3,000 miles away after a single tweet that preceded a romantic rejection, and has electronically latched on to a Tampa Bay woman ever since.
“We actually have been fighting this for three years now,” Bonnie Etemad said. “Nothing seems to stop him.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Reporting Center, a variety of cybercrimes cost about 20,000 Florida victims nearly $400 million in 2019, the most recent year stats were tabulated.
That total was up sharply from 2018, and some categories skyrocketed. Identity theft pulled just over $5.5 million from unsuspecting pockets in 2018 in the state, zooming up to more than $96 million in 2019.
But it’s not always about money.
“We didn’t really have anything for [him] to steal,” Etemad said. “So he has just harassed us. I have asked them to stop. I have begged them to leave me alone.”
Her nightmare started with one tweet – four positive emojis – in response to a post the suspect made supporting women’s rights.
Etemad alleges when she rejected him romantically, he hacked and took control of her Twitter account and then advanced to repeatedly changing passwords on her devices, according to several screenshots.
“When I made a police report,” Etemad said, “he’s just been very vindictive and revengeful since.”
Her friends would say they called her, but in one text string from last April that she saved as potential evidence, Etemad wrote her phone “doesn’t ring.”
The reply? “The voice, the man answered.”
Etemad has saved several recordings of the voice of the man who she claims more than once berated her in Farsi.
“You w****. You prostitute,” she said, translating the garbled, screaming voice. “Death upon you.”
Over the last three years, she alleges he disabled not one, but seven phones. At one point last year, she flew to California to get a temporary injunction where she told the court he “threatened her life.”
But nearly a dozen attempts to subpoena the suspect to appear in court were unsuccessful, leaving the case open out west.
In Pinellas County, a judge dismissed her injunction request, checking a box that states, “the evidence presented is insufficient under Florida law.”
Etemad would argue her case includes many elements of the “Cyberstalk” section of state law, and has filed new paperwork in Pinellas County while also entering data from her claim on the FBI’s internet crime reporting website.
Thomas Hyslip, an instructor in the Criminology Department at the University of South Florida, believes this type of cybercrime might be under reported.
He said while civil laws are lagging, federal and state criminal law has been updated to prosecute cyberstalkers. But in his opinion, law enforcement resources are limited when it comes to chasing single cases in multiple states.
“In select times they’ll go after smaller cases like these to try to make an example and get the word out, you can’t do this, and you’ll be prosecuted,” Hyslip said. “But the reality is you can’t do it every time. “
Etemad alleges there are other victims in multiple states connected to the suspect she is dealing with and is trying to get all of their information to authorities, hoping someone will unplug the stalker.
“He’s making us feel uncomfortable in our own home,” she said. “Choosing random women on social media to target, harass, torment, sabotage and ruin our lives just because we rejected them.”
The suspect in this case has not been charged and has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Hyslip said he could see the FBI getting involved if they receive multiple reports on this one stalker.
“They have analysts that review all the reports and try collect and find a pattern,” Hyslip said. “So, if they find this person, this suspect is doing this to multiple victims, then they would open a case and investigate and try to prosecute.”
Experts say there are a number of ways to protect yourself from cyberstalking and other internet based crimes.
The website Enigma Soft suggests the following prevention tips.
-Limit the amount of personal information you social media.
-Detect and remove data stealing software from your devices.
-Change your passwords often.
-Use a browser with encryption and update it often.
-Use identity theft and other protection services.
But as Etemad found out, the more relentless the stalker is, the more difficult it can be to protect yourself.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “He’s making us basically crazy.”