Latest Crime: Internet Stalking

stalking or you can call it Internet harassment but whatever you call it, it is on the rise and catching the bad guys is no simple task.

Finally, though, Los Angeles police caught up with Gary Dellapenta, 50, of North Hollywood, Calif., a former security guard. By that time, though, his Internet tactics ruined the health of a 28-year-old office worker and cost her job.

According to investigators, the problems began last spring when the rejected suitor began posting personals ads on the Internet. The ads, seemingly from the woman, said she was intrigued with the fantasy of being raped and provided her address. A half dozen men came to her home in response; others called and left sexually explicit messages.

The woman put a note on her apartment door explaining that the Internet ads were phony and had been placed by someone trying to torment her. Afterwards, new ads and e-mail said the note was just part of the fantasy.

Meanwhile, unable to eat, the women's weight went from 130 to 95 pounds. She moved out and stayed with friends and became too terrified to even answer the phone. Her work suffered and her office kept getting harassing calls, causing her to lose her job.

Her alleged tormentor, Dellapenta, is to be arraigned in February on charges of stalking, computer fraud and solicitation of sexual assault. He is the first to be prosecuted under the new state cyber-stalking law. If found guilty, he will face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

According to police, there are plenty of others committing similar crimes. A recent review of 600 cases involving stalking or threats in Los Angeles revealed that fully one-fifth of them involved e-mail or electronic communication. Sometimes, that could take the form of leaving the number "187" on a person's pager, the number of California's murder statute.

Internet supporters claim accounts of such crimes may unfairly taint the image of cyberspace. Stalking, after all, has been going on long before there was a Web to surf. Observers, however, point out that stalkers are persistent and quick to use new technology to serve their twisted aims, making it harder to detect their identity.

In the case of Dellapenta, police tracked his messages by tracing online activity through Compuserve, Hotmail and America Online and with the help of two men who answered his ads.