creepyshadow

There's no place to hide online—even for sophisticated stalkers

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Shawn Sayer had to be very careful.

From 2008 to 2009, if allegations put forth by a federal grand jury are true, he set up dozens of fake social media profiles to harass his ex-girlfriend. He populated them with sexually explicit videos and photographs he’d taken of the woman, back when they were couple, before things turned sour and Sayer began his vicious harassment campaign.

Posing as the victim, he’d post ads for sex to those social media accounts. He included her home address and phone number.

He knew that if he used his home network, police could easily identify him.

So Sayer was a harasser on the move.

He’d drive his truck to a neighbor’s house or to a pizza restaurant in downtown Saco, Maine, and leech nearby WiFi connections. He had a dossier of dummy email addresses, including nearly 50 Yahoo accounts, to create the fake Facebook and Myspace profiles.

In July 2009, six men showed up over the course of one evening, knocking on the glass windows at the victim’s Maine home—just as the phony Facebook page had instructed them to do.

One man left a sexually explicit note on her car. She got into an altercation with another, according to court documents.

There’s no formula that stalker’s follow, but Sayer’s sticks out for its doggedness and nastiness. Maine police took notice. Led by detective Laurie Northup, they pursued Sayer with far more ingenuity, collecting a dossier of evidence could land him in federal prison.

New court documents reveal just how determined and crafty the Maine detectives had to be to pin down Sayer.

They include:

  • Subpoenas to Yahoo, Myspace, Facebook, and PayPal for the IP and login information used on the fake accounts. This information, used as a cross-referencing tool, would form the backbone of much of their detective work.
  • A GPS device on Sayer’s truck. Detectives later matched Sayer’s geographic location with unsecured Wi-Fi networks that had been used to access the account.
  • A (fully legal) stop in Sayer’s driveway. Pretending to be lost, detectives pulled in and quickly scanned for any available unsecured wireless networks. They found one, which was owned by Sayer’s neighbors across the street. That neighbors’ IP address had been used to access one of the Facebook accounts.
  • Hidden cameras. At a pizza shop in Saco, Maine, the camera showed a green pickup truck remarkably similar to Sayer’s pull up and sit idle for more than 20 minutes. IP logs show the the fake MySpace account being accessed at the exact same time.
  • Old-fashioned search and seizure. Bearing a warrant, the detectives searched sayer’s home twice. The second time they seized a laptop, where they found proof Sayer had created 49 Yahoo accounts that he tied to fake social media accounts.

For Forbes’ Kashmir Hill, who has been following the case for months and was herself a victim of eerily similar online harassment, the case demonstrated how illusory online anonymity really is:

“The unmasking that law enforcement did here highlights the fact that our online activity is not as anonymous as we may think when we’re online under assumed names and on other people’s networks.”

As law enforcement’s bag of tricks becomes better and better, hiding your identity online requires more and more sophistication. That no doubt makes many digital rights activists nervous. But for people like the unnamed victim in this case, it can only be a relief.

Photo by richard_north