Police want culprits to get message on text bullying

Police in Oamaru say they are ready to throw the book at the people responsible for a growing number of incidents involving unwanted text messages.

Community Constable Bruce Dow said the latest incident of "text bullying" was reported to police last week when a 38-year-old female complained of receiving unwanted messages of a "unsavoury and threatening" nature.

"The female received a number of unwanted messages from an unknown number and if we find the culprit, we will arrest and charge them under the 2001 Telecommunications Act."

Under the Act, using a phone for fictitious purposes is punishable by three months in jail or a $3000 fine, but Const Dow said text messages were now causing a variety of problems for police.

"It is also a form of cowardice. They are becoming more and more frequent, with threatening and abusive behaviour.

"Another [issue] is [people texting] threatening to commit suicide, which is an ongoing problem as well."

Each report had to be treated seriously, particularly in the case of threats to commit suicide, which was why fictitious threats were trying patience, he said.

It was police "time and effort" that could be put to better use, he said.

"We have to treat them seriously. Until we establish the person is safe and well, we have to keep looking."

Although Oamaru police could not give a precise number of people who had been charged specifically because of text messages under the Telecommunications Act, as the Act also covered telephone and voice-message misuse, the Oamaru station was dealing with "several incidents" relating to text messages each week.

Dunedin police said they dealt with multiple cases involving text messages each day.

Senior Sergeant Tania Baron, of Dunedin, said the problem of people using text messages as a means to harass and threaten had been around for some time.

She put the frequency of "text bullying" down to the accessibility of cellphones and because it was easy to send a text message because it did not involve face-to-face contact.

"There is not a day that goes past that we don't get a call from someone making a complaint [about unwanted text messages].

"It seems to be the main means of harassment and threat."

The text messages ranged from ambiguous threats to threatening to kill, commit suicide and text messages which breached protection orders.

Police took each report "seriously until proved otherwise", which took up "a lot of time and resources", she said.

People who made the texts could face charges under the Telecommunications Act and in more serious cases under the Crimes Act.

"I don't think people appreciate the consequences and we have obviously got the means to trace back those texts if someone does make a complaint."

Timaru police said they were also dealing with the problem, but on a lesser scale.

Snr Sgt Mark Offen said police in Timaru dealt with "one or two" cases a week on an irregular basis.

"Most of our text bullying involves young people, it's text bullying and social media bullying too."

Netsafe Operations Manager Lee Chisholm said the problem of text bullying was not new, and although there was "as much, if not more" bullying taking place on social networking websites, text bullying could cause a lot of distress to victims.

It was a problem that affected adults and children equally.

"We get certainly as many reports from adults as we do from children.

"With adults it's often and ex-partner or ex-partner's new partner or family member they have fallen out with."

Ms Chisholm said there were practical steps people could take to deal with text bullying, which were detailed on the www.netsafe.org.nz website.

Those steps included reporting incidents to police and phone providers, and importantly, not replying to unwanted messages, as messages could only be recorded as unwanted from the date a user stopped replying to them, Ms Chisholm said.

It was also important for victims to seek support from a school guidance councillor or from an adult helpline, she said.

- andrew.ashton@odt.co.nz


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