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When Do Simple Craigslist Pranks Turn Into Cases of Harassment?

Normally when you think of harassment, you think of stalkers, or persistent people who have lost touch with reality and won’t leave you alone. Craigslist, as a tool for harassment, doesn’t really come to mind.

But as Craigslist has grown throughout the years, so has its uses evolved from a classified advertising webpage, to a tool for pranks in creating phony ads. Of course, Craigslist does not endorse any type of inappropriate postings, and most of its users don’t appreciate these phony ads either. But who hasn’t run across the occasional ridiculous ad and been silently amused by it?

craigslistMore seriously though, when does posting a phony or false Craigslist ad turn into a crime? Well, off the top of my head, I can think of plenty of circumstances where this situation could get out of hand and turn into something with serious, legal consequences.

Can You Be Guilty of Harassment Through Craigslist?

But one situation that seems to keep cropping up over and over again is a case of harassment involving the use of phony Craigslist ads. Every few months, it seems like, there’s a new case of someone being guilty of harassment for creating a phony Craigslist ad. Let’s take a look at a couple of the most recent cases:

Earlier this month, there was the case of Crystal Oliver who wanted to retaliate against a friend. Oliver snuck into her friend’s apartment and created two Craigslist postings advertising sexual favors from her friend. She also included the friend’s phone number in the posting.  Before the next morning, her friend had received about 70 phone calls and five text messages. The court’s verdict? Oliver was guilty of sexual harassment.

In another case early this year, Jonathan Medina, a former pharmacist from Connecticut, wanted to retaliate against a customer after arguing about her prescription. In response to their dispute, he created a Craigslist ad for the customer indicating that she was looking for sex. As a result, the customer received 25 phone calls, and one person even tried to visit her home. Medina pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment and was sentenced to two years’ probation.

These are just two examples, but there are many other, similar cases out there where courts have found that harassment exists. However, none of these cases fit the normal bill of what you would expect a harassment case to be. These perpetrators did not actually make the phone calls that constituted harassment, nor did they even engage in repeated or multiple acts of harassment.  So what exactly constitutes harassment? This would be a good time to review the law on harassment.

What are the Laws on Harassment?

To begin with, “harassment” is a general term that encompasses a plethora of different legal actions you could take. There are both federal and state laws against harassment. Additionally, there are both civil and criminal harassment claims. And within criminal harassment, you can be charged with either misdemeanor or felony harassment.

Furthermore, harassment is broken down into several different types–sexual harassment, workplace harassment, verbal harassment, phone harassment, even internet harassment–you name it. My point is that there is no uniform harassment law, and each jurisdiction will have a slightly different variation on what constitutes harassment.

Regardless, there are still some common elements that can be found throughout all or most harassment claims:

1. Intent: This is a frequently found word throughout most harassment statutes, but it can be very misleading. Intent doesn’t usually require that the perpetrator have the express intention of harassing/making life difficult for the victim. Instead, it is usually enough for the perpetrator to have known about the consequences of his actions, but not necessarily have wanted for them to happen.

Take the example of the harasser who persists in making phone calls to a romantic love interest. The harasser certainly does not intend to disrupt the victim’s life, but only wants to prove how much the victim is “loved.” Regardless, the harasser’s actions in themselves are enough to make him/her guilty of harassment. It is of no consequence that the harasser had no intention of actually making the victim’s life difficult.

In the Craigslist cases, courts have made it clear enough that the perpetrators don’t have to be the ones to actually make the harassing phone calls, texts, or home visits, to be found guilty. Instead, it’s enough to just be aware of the likelihood of these consequences happening.

2. Frequency of the act: Most statutes will cite harassment as being a pattern of repeated behavior over time. However, in many circumstances, if the action is severe enough, even one act may be enough to constitute harassment.

For example, in California, one telephone call is enough to constitute harassment if it contains obscenity or violence. If not, telephone harassment only exists through repeated actions.

Somewhat similarly, in the Craigslist cases, the courts found that harassment existed even though the perpetrators had only put up one or two Craigslist postings. However, what the courts were probably swayed by was the fact that the perpetrators knew of the likelihood of these postings leading to a host of offensive phone calls.

This is by no means a precise analysis of what constitutes harassment. However, what I believe we can take away from these cases is that the definition of harassment can be quite broad. This gives courts a great deal of leeway in deciding harassment cases. More importantly, the trend for now in Craigslist cases seems to be that courts will not be lenient towards those who continue to use Craigslist for pranking purposes.

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  • Mathew Miller

    What if someone (a competitor)is constantly flagging your ads? Can you sue them, or have them arrested?

  • Jeff Stone

    On January 6th of 2011 I signed up for an account on Craigslist and posted my first post on the XXXXXX County, XXXXXX Rants & Raves section of its Personal Ads. I was told by a friend that the Rants & Raves section was a good place to practice my still fledgling chat and blog skills and to get a taste of what “really” goes on over the internet. It was, and still stands as, one of the worst mistakes I have made in my 55 years.

    From that day forward I have been the brunt of what has been described to me by family, friends and my doctor as a constant barrage of criminal harassment unlike anything they had ever seen, heard or experienced. This harassment has spilled over into our relatively small community of XXXXXXXXXXX, has affected my relationship with my son and has affected me both psychologically and physically.

    When those that were posting their racist, intolerant, bigot based vial rhetoric could no longer shut me up in my opposition to their views, or intimidate me to do so, they resorted to a campaign of lies and innuendos of one of the most violist acts that one human can perpetrate on another, child molestation. They have made accusatory posts of me of raping my 10 year old son and stalking children at local food stores, parks and on the River front. They have attached my picture, full name and address on some of those posts and have used nicknames that have been given to me by other posters which are clearly related to prior posts with my name, address and picture. They have also accused me of public homosexual acts where I have charged people for my “services.” On March 16th, 2011 I received two death threats naming me by name on Craigslist saying I would be “shot down” if seen on the streets. In my estimation I have been targeted in more than 1000 posts of this type and have been threaten on at least a dozen different occasions. On May 3rd, 2011 this all culminated for me, but did not end, when I was at my pharmacy picking up a prescription and my name was called and the man next to me looked up and said ”You’re not the Jeff Stone on Craigslist that everyone is saying is a child molester, are you?”

    I first notified Craigslist of this activity in February 2011, and have followed through with it since on many different occasions. The death threats were forwarded to the Chief of Police in XXXXXXXXXXX, XX and he forwarded them to investigators while telling me that they would look into it because “they took this kind of thing very seriously.” I contacted my local law enforcement agency, XXXXXXXXXX Police Department, in May of 2011 and have contacted them on two or three different occasions since.

    To say that Craigslist, the XXXXXXXX Police Department and the XXXXXXXXXXX Police Department have taken this lightly would be an understatement; Craigslist has all but ignored me (I did get one response from Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, stating he was “getting right on it”. Haven’t heard anything from him since), the XXXXXXXX Police Department never contacted me and the XXXXXXXXXX Police Department had all but scoffed at my complaints. I have been told to change pharmacies, don’t get on the internet, stop using Craigslist and have been constantly reminded of how stupid it was to put my name and address on Craigslist in the first place; like this whole thing is my fault and I’m the one who needs to change my behavior, where I go and how I use the internet.

    On November 13th, 2011 a post was put up that held the proverbial straw that broke the camels back; a picture of a Penn’ State football player was posted where the players head had been removed and a copy of my face was photoshopped into its place, the heading said “Jeffy is in the showers waiting for the boys to come in.” I came apart. I live across the street from the XXXXXXXXX Police Department and that’s where I headed. Not surprisingly my mood wasn’t to congenial as they had been aware of this situation for months now and all but dismissed it as something not worthy of their time and effort and I ran head long into that same attitude again. This time I pushed back, hard! When an officer tried to tell me how difficult it would be for them to track these people down and again tried to dismiss it as something they didn’t want to take the time with and ended his part of the conversation with his apathetically dismissive tone saying, “Well, what is it exactly you would want us to do, Mr. Stone?” I responded with, “Your job!” The case has been assigned to a Detective XXXX and in the coming days I will be in contact with him to ask of any progress. Also, Craigslist has shut down the XXXXXXX XXXXXXX Rants & Rave section of the Personal Ads after I faxed them a copy of actions that I demanded (no use asking anymore since that was ignored) and a copy of a letter from my Doctor.

    I am not a pedophile, I am not a child molester, and I have never raped my son. I have never been suspected, investigated, charged or convicted of any sex crime including those against children. I am not currently, nor have I ever been, on any city, county, state and or federal sex offenders list. There is absolutely no reason for these accusations to be directed at me, other than a sick demented means of getting back at me for not being a racist, a bigot or intolerable towards anyone’s lifestyle, gender, sexual preference, race or ethnicity.

    I have been put through the ringer with this and now I’m asking for some attention to come to light about it. I want people to know that this can, and does, happen and those that can stop it are not all that motivated to do so until after something serious has happened. Craigslist is, in my opinion, culpable in the criminal harassment I have endured. That local law enforcement, in my opinion, is not prepared for this sort of action nor do they care about situations like this until it escalates into something far more serious. I am the one that has been told to change my lifestyle, to go to different places, not to be on the internet and to stay off of Craigslist; why?! Why am I the one that has to suffer further from the indignities I have been put through while those that have perpetrated this garbage can go on as if nothing has happened? Why is it that law enforcement cannot find the time to investigate this type of criminal activity?

    Do I have any civil options in regards to Craigslist involvement in this matter?

  • Richard West

    I was harassed by a crazy lady on Craigslist. I had to get a lawyer to resolve it. The lawyer handled it very quickly and had the crazy lady and her friend (also in on the harassment) begging for mercy. It isn’t cheap to address the issue, going that route, though. Law enforcement was virtually useless. I’m currently going through the same crap again, from a group of crazy people. Once again, I may be forced to pay an attorney to stop the harassment. Those people should be jailed and made to reimburse me for damages. The lawyer said I could recoup damages, but he wanted a large sum of money up front, to do so. I hope you were able to resolve your problem without too much expense or trouble.

  • joseph amico

    this guy has been harassing everyone in las vegas craiglist for years, he is finally in jail..
    he will post fake ads for free items such as puppies and ipods with the victims phone # and address..he sells pirated software from his home so his address is public. one day while doing some investigating on who was harrasing me for posting my computer for sale, slipped up and emailed me from his personal account. after a few conversations to make sure it was him, i notified everyone who is a regular poster on C.L. that i had all of his personal info and gladly gave it away..everyone knows who he is yet he still harasses folks.
    He is in jail now for violating his probation (harassment). google search him..

  • Gary Connor

    They are absolutely right.. There are people using craigslist at will to abuse and terrorize regular people and neither craigslist nor the police will lift a finger to help. Quite the opposite. When I post in return to deny what they are saying they have some type of app where they can flag all by themselves.. And then this abuser can block your account while they continue to post sick and depraved things about you and your family members and posting ads with your phone numbers for man on man sex for my grandaughter to answer..Even with the death threats Neither craigslist nor the police did a thing.

  • William

    I have a question. If someone post a fake add of myself and basically whores me out and tells folks to send a pic of you know what to my cell number how do I find out who that person is? Will CL violate that persons privacy without a search warrant? Do I need to hire someone to do some fancy hacking investigation to find out? Thanks.

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