Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Features
Times Past
The Ethicist
Debate
Teen Voices
 • 
 • 
Upfront Topics
Contact
Magazine Info

How a Cyberbully Almost Ruined My Life

Lynda Lopez on the vicious e-mails and death threats that nearly sank her college plans—and how she fought back

By Lynda Lopez, 19


In October 2009, I learned that I was a finalist for a full scholarship to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. When I got the news, I did what any teen today would do: I posted it on Facebook. The next day, I found out I was also a finalist for the Questbridge National College Match Scholarship. Before heading out to dinner and a movie with a friend, I updated my Facebook status with the good news.

But my festive mood that night was shattered by a call from the Posse Foundation, which was offering the scholarship to Carleton College.

"Lynda," said the woman at Posse, "we received your e-mail. It said you wanted to drop out of the program because the scholarship was a piece of crap."

I told her that the e-mail wasn't from me. When I got home, I had an e-mail from another foundation I had applied to: "Call us immediately," which I did.

"We received your insulting e-mail and our president is deeply upset," their representative told me.

The sender's e-mail address was nearly identical to mine. I explained that someone must be trying to sabotage my applications. The woman told me to write a statement to the president of the organization.

I quickly completed my statement and sent it to all the colleges and scholarships I had applied to. Then I checked my e-mail. There were 12 messages with the subject "I will kill you." One of them repeated the threat more than 50 times, along with obscenities about "stealing my scholarship."

No one else except my family would have known yet that I was a scholarship finalist, so I knew that whoever was behind this had to be on my list of Facebook friends. Like a lot of people, I'd always accepted every friend request, never thinking it could be dangerous.

At midnight, my mother and sister went with me to the police station. The officer seemed indifferent when I told him about the death threats. He said a detective would call in a few days.

But as weeks went by and I continued to receive death threats, I became wary of everyone around me. It was early December when a detective finally called. By then, the impostor had also contacted Carleton College. This person could have jeopardized my college education.

They found the perpetrator in January: It was a girl I'd worked with at an old job; she was a senior at another high school and ultracompetitive. Although she wasn't arrested, she was charged with harassment by electronic communication—a misdemeanor in Illinois punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,500 fine.

A hearing took place in February, and the court imposed a one-year supervision period, which means the girl can't have any unlawful contact with me for a year. She wasn't put on trial or convicted of any crime.

Illinois law states that electronic harassment becomes a felony only after the second offense. Although this girl had harassed and impersonated me more than once, her actions were considered a single offense under the law. She got off with a slap on the wrist.

Fortunately, the scholarship organizations had all believed my statement: I was ultimately awarded a full-tuition Questbridge scholarship to the University of Chicago.

But this ordeal has shaken my trust in social networking sites. I no longer accept friend requests from mere acquaintances, and Facebook's ever-changing privacy policies have left me concerned about who can see what on my profile.

My mission is to pursue a change in Illinois cyberbullying law. I hope that my voice and those of other victims will be heard and eventually lead to stricter laws. Maybe the state didn't want to ruin an 18-year-old's life because of one offense—even if she had been willing to ruin mine.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 6, 2010)