Sept. 24, 2009— -- Debbie Lee was more than 100 miles from home, camping in the woods, when someone staged a life-and-death drama on her Facebook page.
For about two-and-a-half hours, suicidal notes were posted to her account. As family and friends wrote back, pleading with her to preserve her life, the messages continued.
"Debbie Lee has realized that my life is a lie and that my only friend is the handgun in the back of my closet," said one message. "My pain will be over soon," said another.
It wasn't until Lee reached ground high enough to have phone reception that she received any clue about what was happening. About 20 messages flooded in within a minute, she said, some telling her not to do "anything drastic."
By the time her son got through to her cell phone, several police officers had assembled outside her home in Surprise, Ariz., ready to break down the door.
"They thought maybe I was out somewhere, maybe, going to kill myself," she said, adding that her closest friends, and even children, were fooled because of all the personal details threaded through the messages. "This person was pretending to be me."
A hacker, she said, had impersonated her online, convincing family and friends that she was on the verge of suicide. The fraudster also broke into her e-mail account and sent out racist messages, she said.
Lee, whose son was a Navy Seal who died in Iraq in 2006, said the whole ordeal has been "an absolute nightmare."
"I just don't understand. Our family has been through so much," she said. "The person threatened more attacks. I've changed the way I've lived my life. I've never been a worrier, a fretter. I've had to think differently."
Although local police started to investigate the incident, which took place Aug. 21, she said she was told Friday that the case had been closed because they couldn't identify any city or state laws that had been broken.
"I couldn't believe it. How could you say that there weren't any laws broken?" asked Lee. "I couldn't believe that they had closed the case."
Lee: Someone Is Trying to Discredit Me
Since the death of her son Marc, Lee has become a vocal spokeswoman for members of the military and their families. She founded the non-profit America's Mighty Warriors, which remembers fallen soldiers and supports their families.
And she has traveled to Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other military bases to thank the troops, meeting with President George W. Bush and other dignitaries along the way.
Given her work and visibility, she thinks the attacks were politically motivated.
"I don't know what kind of sick, sick human would do this," Lee said. "It's someone trying to discredit who I am and what I do."
But though Lee said the experience has left her shaken to the core, distrusting the technology that made this possible, a spokesman for the local police department said that, under city and state law, a crime was not necessarily committed.
"Yes, it causes grief and we do feel for her. We do take that seriously. But unfortunately, our hands are tied by the fact that we have to be out there enforcing an actual statute," said Sgt. Mark Ortega, a public information officer with the Surprise Police Department.
He said that after conferring with the county attorney, the department concluded that there weren't cyber harassment statutes it could enforce.
Although he said that in some areas pranksters who cry wolf could be charged with wasting police resources, those statutes don't exist in Surprise.
He said the case isn't officially closed but is considered "inactive." Although his colleagues have reached a standstill, he said they've notified the FBI and are working with them to see what could be prosecuted at the federal level.
Doug Sylvester, a professor at the Sandra Day O'Conner College of Law at Arizona State University, agreed that a state criminal statute would likely not apply in this case, but said that under federal law hacking into someone else's account is a criminal offense.
"Criminal law assigns itself to the most egregious results" he said.
But in cases that don't result in physical harm or financial losses, the lack of political will means they're left to the civil side.
Cyber Harassment Happens More Frequently Than People Think
Although he wasn't familiar with the details of Lee's case, he said she could claim psychological and emotional distress in a civil case.
Still, some cyber crime experts say that though these kinds of attacks happen more frequently than people think, more training is needed to educate law enforcement about the laws surrounding personal cyber attacks.
"A lot of law enforcement, they just don't understand what the panoply of laws are," said Parry Aftab, the executive director of WiredSafety.org and cyber abuse expert. "All these fake, 'I'm going to commit suicide' things happen often. In chat rooms, on social networks, they happen in interactive games."
Sometimes the fraudsters fake suicide because they think it's a funny joke, other times it's because they're emotionally unbalanced or have a vendetta against the person, she said.
Although local privacy laws vary, Aftab said people in Lee's position could bring civil charges for theft, fraud or defamation but emphasized that hacking into another's account (be it e-mail, a social network or other service) is a crime.
Depending on how long identifying information is retained by the online company, she said, the hacker can be traced through information like an IP (Internet protocol) address, which is the unique number assigned to each computer.
To improve their online safety, Aftab advises people to assign a unique password to each of their online accounts and use unusual character or word combinations in each password.
As for local law enforcement's decision to close Lee's case, Aftab acknowledged that she doesn't know all of the facts, but said, "I think they may have closed it too soon because it is a very important issue that they need to make clear should not be repeated and needs to be treated with the most serious reaction possible."