Cease and desist: Empty words without action

Experts says more than harsh legal letters needed to stop harassing phone calls and emails

Our work in threat assessment demands creativity, patience, intuition, and the ability to not only think outside-the-box, but to help (or urge) others to do so as well.  One area where we run into difficulties is during the discussion, often with company attorneys, about the need to send a threatener, who has contacted the organization by email, letter, or phone, a "cease and desist" letter.  This person is often a former employee who quit in anger or was terminated under negative circumstances. It could also be an unpaid vendor, embattled customer or taxpayer.  They often choose to target the firm with a barrage of emails or calls, designed to disrupt operations and make the recipients fear for their lives.  In these cases, senior management wants answers and turns to the company HR, security or counsel to take actions.

From experience, we know that email threats are much less of a security concern than unannounced visits by former employees.  Threatening from a distance is a different mindset than screaming in the company lobby at a frightened receptionist.  This is at the heart of the matter; some people use  threatening emails, texts, written letters (less likely these days), or menacing voice messages left on their targets’ business or personal accounts or phone numbers.  Their use of electronic distance is intentional.  Their thinking goes: "I can reach out to threaten you anytime and from anywhere, just by pressing a few buttons and there is nothing you can do to stop me."

Would you rather work on a threat case where the perpetrator sent an ominous email as "IHateYourGuts@yahoo.com" or the same email with "MyFirstName.MyLastName@yahoo.com?"  For the first threatener, he or she is using an anonymous email address to do just that, remain anonymous.  This person fears the consequences, wants to continue to play cat and mouse, and may think that shuffling through a series of fake email addresses makes it harder for us to track or identify him or her.  For the second threatener, who uses his or her name and self-identifies, there is no intent to hide.  This person is saying: "Yeah, it’s me, so now what are you going to do about it?" The behavior of self-identified threateners is more of a concern because they are not being covert, but overt, in their threats of harm.  

Many electronic threateners perceive what they’re doing as not necessarily illegal (which it is in most states), and they enjoy being provocative, all-powerful, and disruptive.  We are certainly more concerned when ex-employees, domestic violence partners of current employees, angry vendors or customers, or mentally ill strangers enter our work facilities with no warning.  The electronic threatener gives us advance notice and a great evidentiary paper trail of dates, times and words.  The phone threatener gives us evidence of tone, malice, and threatening statements, which we can take to the police for a possible arrest or a judge should we decide to get a civil protection order.

This is where the paradoxical part of our work comes into play.  As the U.S. Secret Service has told us, some people make threats and some people pose threats.  We often have more concerns from people who pose threats than those who make them.  Overt threats mean something different than covert threats.  As such, we need to handle these cases in completely different ways, which takes some hard convincing to get the company stakeholders to agree.  Sometimes simply observing the stream of messages is an effective course of action.  We can watch for signs of depression, bipolar disorder, loss of hope, statements about weapons possession, or suicidal or homicidal ideations.  But senior management and their attorneys, who may not understand the threat assessment process, demand actions, not observations. 

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