Women in the World

10.12.12

Busting a Cyberstalker: How Carla Franklin Fought Back—and Triumphed

After just a few casual dates with a man, Carla Franklin faced years of harassment, stalking, and cyberbullying. Now she’s suing him—in a new frontier of online crimes. Her story, as told to Abigail Pesta.

I remember feeling stunned, then sick. Sitting at my desk at a New York City consulting firm in 2009, I had randomly Googled my name. The jarring result: a series of strange montages on YouTube—all containing snapshots of me, along with the label “whore.” The photos, cobbled together from various corners of the Internet, were shots from a beauty pageant and a few acting jobs I had held in the past, when I was signed with a regional modeling agency. My mind raced. Who hated me this much to post these things? Who would call me a whore?

And then I knew exactly who had done it.

I had first met Shon Moss four years earlier, in December of 2005. At the time, I had recently transferred to Philadelphia from Austin, Texas, while working as a software consultant for IBM. I was excited to be in Philadelphia—it was a nice change of pace from North Carolina, where I’d grown up in a small town, later going to college at Duke. I met Shon at a networking mixer; he was getting his MBA at Wharton. I was in my late 20s, looking to make new friends, applying to business school, doing some modeling for catalogs and commercials, just for fun. When I told Shon I was working on MBA applications, he offered to help.

And with that, he began a quest that spanned more than half a decade—harassing me, stalking me, eventually becoming a cyberbully. I’m telling my story now so that other women can learn from my experience. Law enforcement has not caught up to technology when it comes to online harassment. I want to change that. This month, I filed a lawsuit against Shon. I will not be his victim.

That winter in Philadelphia, I traveled a lot for work, enjoying the single life and dating casually. I went out with Shon a few times. I remember some red flags. He seemed a bit testy, angry, as if the world were against him. For instance, I sent him a jokey e-card for his birthday, and he accused me of viewing him as a joke. One night, he got furious that his rugby teammates hadn’t invited him to a party; we crashed the party and an awkward evening ensued, as he aggressively introduced me to everyone as a model—an apparent attempt to one-up the guys. Another night, when he started grilling me about other men, I suspected that he had peeked at my cellphone texts. We argued. We had been on just a few dates; we were not a couple—I hardly even knew him. I told him this wasn’t going to work, and stopped communicating with him.

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Franklin explains how a few innocent dates turned into what she alleges were years of cyber-stalking.

In the spring of 2006, I got accepted into the MBA program at Columbia University in New York City. As I packed up to leave Philadelphia, I decided to tie up loose ends, including Shon. I sent him a brief goodbye email, wishing him luck and saying I thought he would do well in life. I was young, naïve; I didn’t want anyone to have bad feelings toward me. Looking back, I can see that the friendly gesture was a misstep. He wrote back: “You’re FOS.” In other words, “full of shit.” Suddenly I had no problem writing him off.

That fall, as I started school in New York, I received scattered cellphone texts from Shon, mainly pesky little notes about his day-to-day life. Sometimes he would send odd sayings, like “Sex does a body good.” Other times, he would say he had Googled me, telling me what he had found, such as the fact that another woman shared my name. I just ignored him.

And then, he showed up randomly at a mixer for Columbia MBA students in New York. He walked in, made a beeline for me, and said he had moved to the city for a job. I was alarmed, but I didn’t panic. It wasn’t necessarily inappropriate for him to be at the event—we ran in similar circles, so a friend could have invited him—but still, I was on high alert to his weird behavior. He apologized for his actions back in Philadelphia, and I was distant, but polite. I see now that he misinterpreted my politeness as interest.

Sporadic, obsessive bursts of emails, texts, and calls followed—to the point where I told him outright that we could not be friends, eventually changing my cellphone number. Then he put me on a group email list, where he announced that he had become engaged to a Brazilian woman. Good, I thought. Now he will leave me alone. The group emails kept coming, detailing the wedding plans. Again, I ignored them.

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Franklin with a young friend while on a grant in Africa after graduate school. (Courtesy of Carla Franklin)

Then, he started showing up at Columbia events where I happened to be, such as a black business-student gala. He didn’t speak to me; he just stared. At the gala, he danced beside me, elbowing me but not saying anything. Later that night, he sent a bizarre email saying, “Miss ya funny spirit and personality.” I wasn’t sure what to do. He had never threatened me; he had just been a nuisance. But this was getting spooky.

The emails would come and go in waves. Just when I would start to get nervous and think I should report him, they would drop off for a few months. And anyway, what would I report him for—being a nuisance? I kept hoping that if I ignored him, he would get bored and fixate on someone else, like his fiancée. He didn’t, continuing to harass me throughout graduate school.

When I graduated, I traveled to Africa on a grant, working on a pair of business consulting projects. There, the strangest thing happened. A man I had considered a mentor back in New York emailed me a photo of himself practically naked, wearing nothing but a Speedo and a sombrero. At first I thought it was some kind of joke. I asked him what on earth he was doing. We had never dated; the photo was totally inappropriate. His reply floored me: He said he had received sexually explicit texts from an old cellphone number that had belonged to me.

When I got back to New York, two more male friends said the same thing—they had received X-rated texts from my old cellphone number. The texts were rude notes about masturbation, S&M; one of the texts invited the guys to knock down my door, tie me up, and rape me. I was flabbergasted. I sent an email to all my friends, telling them to ignore any obscene texts.

At the time, I thought perhaps it all had something to do with a cellphone that had been stolen; maybe someone had somehow tapped into my contacts. It didn’t occur to me that Shon could be behind it. I had never heard of software you could illegally download to “spoof” someone’s cellphone, making it appear that texts are coming from that person’s number. I would find that out later.

In the spring of 2009, nearly four years after I had first met Shon, a series of events led me to take legal action. First, he randomly appeared and followed me onto a subway platform, startling me and complaining about problems in his new marriage. I felt a wave of fear. He rode the subway with me, and when we got out, I was terrified that he would follow me. I told him I was going home to meet my boyfriend.

Soon after, I saw him at a mutual friend’s barbecue. He didn’t speak to me, but when I left, I had a call from our mutual friend. She said Shon had “freaked out” after I left, interrogating her about who I was dating. She said, “I’m so sorry, I forgot you and Shon had been involved in a relationship.” I couldn’t believe it. We had only gone on a few dates—years earlier. My friend said Shon had claimed we’d gone out for an entire year. I flipped out. I realized he had concocted some fictional chain of events in his twisted mind.

And then, I saw the YouTube photo montages, calling me a whore. I knew Shon was responsible, and that he would never stop. I pictured myself married with kids someday, and he would show up at the front door with a knife. I needed to fight this.

I called a friend whose boyfriend worked for the FBI. He advised me take screen shots of the montages, then flag them as a copyright infringement so YouTube would take them down. Then he helped me draft an explicit letter to Shon, telling him to leave me alone. Shon replied four times, asking me to call him. More menacing comments about me began popping up around the Internet—on message boards and blogs, even beneath a video of me in Africa; in one posting, my contact info appeared. A Facebook page was created in my name, using a beauty-pageant swimsuit shot.

I was constantly Googling myself, looking for hateful postings. I wrote to Google for advice. I was told I would need a court order to get the IP address for the computer where these things were coming from. Then the person could be identified and stopped, with an order of protection.

I had lawyers telling me they didn’t know anything about Internet harassment and judges telling me I was wasting their time.

I got a lawyer, and in August 2010, I filed a court order in the New York Supreme Court to get that IP address. Within hours of the filing, the New York tabloid reporters, always on alert for juicy court news, started reporting on it—and not very accurately. They posted sensationalistic stories online, with headlines like “Brainy Ex-Model Suing Google.”

Before I realized these stories were popping up, my manager at the Wall Street technology-consulting firm where I worked called me into a conference room. His words blindsided me: He said my job was being phased out, and that it had nothing to do with performance. At the time I was confused; I hadn’t seen the headlines yet. When I saw them, I knew exactly why my job was being eliminated, and I was disgusted. I had told my boss two weeks earlier that I was being stalked. Now I was trying to stop the perpetrator—and I was losing my job because I had made the headlines.

I won my court order, and Google produced the IP information. Next up: linking it to a physical street address—which required a new court order to get that information from the Internet service provider. So I got that court order too. In early 2011, the Internet service provider alerted the owner of the IP address that I was seeking his street address. The owner of the IP address was Shon—and I know this because his lawyer showed up court to fight it, effectively admitting the IP address belonged to Shon. That’s all the evidence I needed.

That spring, I got an order of protection against Shon. In late 2011, I learned about cellphone spoofing, and got a subpoena for AT&T to produce phone records, showing that Shon had indeed been behind those antics too. Along the way, a police detective told me there was a criminal complaint against Shon from another woman, in 2008—for alleged stalking and harassment. I wasn’t alone.

During all of this time, I had lawyers telling me they didn’t know anything about Internet harassment and judges telling me I was wasting their time. One judge told me point blank that I didn’t belong in her court, saying she had more important cases of abuse to deal with. Because I had no physical signs of trauma, she didn’t think my battle mattered.

Adding to my anxiety, some of my “friends” told me I was making a big deal out of nothing. I found out who my true friends are—the cream rises to the top. I also learned that Shon was going around calling me a liar. I became exhausted, depressed. But all the while, I continued to fight to expose this bully and regain my peace of mind. At every step, I studied the laws myself, becoming my own legal advocate.

This month, I filed a lawsuit against Shon to collect damages for stalking, harassment, criminal impersonation, and defamation. I want to stop him from doing this to me, and to other women. The story I tell here is laid out in my lawsuit. I need to take a stand.

Shon’s lawyer has stated that my lawsuit is without merit. People ask if I worry that the suit will only make Shon angrier. I refuse to live in fear, quietly hoping he will go away. My goal now is to help educate people about online crimes and how to fight them. To that end, I’m working as a full-time management consultant under my own business shingle—and I’m happier, and better paid, than when I worked for the Wall Street firm that didn’t stand by me.

Outside of work, I’m an anti-cybercrimes advocate. I’ve spoken on panels and on the radio, both as an expert and survivor; I’ve worked as a legislative consultant with the New York Senate. I want to fight for women who might not have the money or resources to go after their online stalkers—or who are told in court that cybercrimes aren’t real. I want politicians, legal experts, and law enforcement to take this crime seriously. I think they have a lot to learn. It’s my mission to help teach them.