YORK, Maine — Jayne Hitchcock remembers that time in 1997 when she was stalked online by someone who turned out to be an unscrupulous huckster — in the early days of the Internet after she joined an early form of message board called a “newsgroup.”
“I went to the police, but law enforcement had no clue about the Internet. When I called them, they said, ‘What is a newsgroup?’ So I had to learn myself who was stalking me online,” she said.
Now 18 years later, the nonprofit organization she formed, Working to Halt Online Abuse, has nearly two dozen investigators from all over the world handling thousands of cases a year filed by people who often tell them they have nowhere else to turn. And she has just been recognized by her peers for that work, receiving a prestigious award from the international organization Messaging, Malware and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group.
M3AAWG, whose members include some of the largest network operators worldwide, works to educate global leaders about technical and operational issues related to online abuse and messaging. Being selected by them for an award, said Hitchcock, has been an honor.
“Believe me, some days I say I’ve had it. This is difficult work, and I’m not always sure it’s appreciated,” said Hitchcock, a York resident. The award made her realize, “Wow, someone really does recognize my work. It’s really cool.”
Hitchcock and the WHO@ investigators work for free, offering to tackle cases that may not rise to criminal levels but that are leaving victims feeling drained and defenseless. She describes an eBay seller, for instance, who said a customer began harassing her and calling her a crook. She had a paper trail, and Hitchcock gave her concrete steps she had to take with eBay, Paypal and even the police to get the harassment to stop and her reputation returned.
Her staff of volunteer investigators, like her, have almost all been victims of cyber harassment in some form as well, so they have empathy when dealing with victims.
Hitchcock has traveled around the world, speaking at conferences, to law enforcement organizations and, particularly, schools. Over the years, teen and preteen cyberbullying, sexting and text bullying have become a big focus of WHO@.
“Just recently, I was asked to talk to kindergartners. They’re getting younger and younger,” she said. “It used to be my tame presentation was for middle schoolers. Not anymore. It’s really scary.”
Everything these days revolves around cellphones, she said. Facebook is kind of passe. Apps like Snapchat, Whisper, Yik Yak, WhatsApp, Vine and Secret are the new venues for bullying, she said.
“Kids will start getting anonymous messages that scare them, and they freak out,” she said. “When I go to schools, I give them options, ways they can talk to someone,” including at the WHO@ website, www.haltabuse.org.