'I just didn't expect this kind of violation'

'I just didn't expect this kind of violation' »Play Video
TACOMA, Wash. -- It began with a series of odd phone calls. Strange men would leave voice messages. There was Jeremy, John, Roger and Dave, who identified himself as "play in Tacoma," an Internet handle. There were explicit phone calls, suggestive e-mails, all from strange men "Ann" never heard of.

"I was devastated, I was scared," she said.

Ann is so traumatized that she doesn't want us using her real name or showing her face.

"I just didn't expect this kind of violation into my personal life, it just was so upsetting and shocking," she said.

Ann supervises a local customer service office. She expected trouble when she had to fire a female worker after giving her numerous "last chances."

"I didn't know how and I didn't know when, but there was a part of me that felt that it wasn't quite over," she said.

Her hunch was right. A month after she fired the worker, it started.

The calls to her work phone and a strange man's voice telling her, "hope you're having a good day and look forward to hearing back from you." And the calls to her work phone: "I just replied to your e-mail and uhhhhh, calling this number..." and messages via e-mail.

And then, strangers started calling her personal cell phone and home phone. "At that point," said Ann, "it became personal."

Ann and her husband discovered the men were responding to an ad on the Craigslist Web site. It said she was a single female looking for sex with a couple. The ad even included Ann's photograph taken from her company website.

"It's really, really, really tortured and mean," said Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Internet safety expert Linda Criddle says the harassment is a crime.

"Whether it's a prosecutable crime or not, it's a crime, treating people that way's just awful," she said.

Both experts agree that Ann's situation is potentially very dangerous. "Short of homicide and short of physical violence," said Namie, "this is about the meanest thing you can do because of the threats that strangers have posed to this woman."

Ann and her husband talked to Craigslist, which removed the ad, and they filed a police report. They traced the ad to a Hotmail account associated with the fired worker. But so far, there have been no repercussions.

"I feel like she's walking away from this with no punishment," Ann said.

These kind of online attacks are on the rise. Last April, a Tacoma home was trashed after a woman posted a fake ad on Craigslist telling people to take everything.

"Without a doubt these technological tools just make it too easy to abuse," said Namie.

Criddle says there are some things that online sites can do to make it safer, but many don't want to burden their users with the extra hassle of verifying that they are who they say they are.

"I think companies need to be urged to do the right thing," she said.

And in the meantime, unsuspecting people like Ann become targets.

"I was concerned for my family, for my child's welfare, I didn't feel safe anymore," she said.

Tacoma detectives are investigating but admit businesses like Craigslist and Internet service providers with anonymous e-mail accounts make these crimes difficult to pursue.

Criddle likens today's Internet to the wild, wild west and says laws and enforcement are just slowly catching up.