Cybercrimes on a Personal Level: What is Cyberstalking?
Julianne Grayson, freelance writer for HomeSecurity.org
Keeping your family safe from cybercrime may sometimes apply on a more personal level, in the form of cyberstalking or cyberbullying. Like other cybercrime, both of these forms of harassment occur globally and are illegal in most countries. They are a relatively new source of trouble in the U.S.; lawmakers enacted the first state cyberstalking law in California in 1999, and are currently enacting laws that protect children from cyberbullying.
Using electronic communications tools to stalk an individual on the Internet is known as cyberstalking or cyberharassment. When there is implicit danger to a person, defined as a credible threat of harm, this behavior is referred to as cyberstalking. A credible threat can be a stated act of violence to a person or a person’s family, or it may mean the implied threat of danger; state laws vary in the language used to describe these crimes.
Cyberstalking, like physical stalking, is most often an offshoot of a romantic encounter gone wrong. Stalking is an attempt to exert control. Stalkers are insistent, typically repeating their offending behavior many times over. Most victims are women and most perpetrators are men. Generally, they know each other; while stalking by strangers is rare, it does exist.
Cyberstalking behaviors might include:
- Excessive attempts at contact via cell phone, texts, Facebook posts and e-mails
- Using social media “check-ins” or locational features to physically stalk a victim
- Excessive delivery of unwanted gifts, cards, or flowers to a victim’s home
- Contacting or threatening a victim’s family and friends
- Using your email address to sign up for excessive amounts of spam or unwanted newsletters
- Supplying your phone number to threatening, frightening or irrelevant parties
- Using your work e-mail to sign up for a pornography website
- Sending spam or malware to your email account
- Repeatedly instant messaging on any number of social media platforms
- Posting information online about the victim that is embarrassing, frightening or harmful to reputation
- Creating false social media accounts in a victim’s name and posting photos and information, whether true or not
- Blogging about a victim with slanderous intent
- Broadcasting your personal information to a wide audience via chat rooms
- Using your personal information to seek credit, potentially damaging your credit score
The wealth of personal information available on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others makes it easy for a malicious person to gather enough data to inflict damage. The proliferation of GPS-based apps like Facebook’s check-in tool even provides real-time locational information. A would-be stalker can gain a dangerous amount of information with just a few clicks.
To some, the perception persists that cyberstalking is not as dangerous a threat as physical stalking. However, this is a misconception on several levels. Because the Internet offers such anonymity, a cyberstalker could be several states away – or several blocks away. Victims of cyberstalkers may not know where their stalker lives, and that mystery can be stressful and frightening.
Cyberstalkers hide behind an electronic screen; even if their identity is known to the victim, the ease of creating fake names, profiles and websites on the web provides a stalker with an electronic layer of anonymity and sense of power over his victim. The physical removal from a victim may make a stalker less inhibited with invective and, contrary to expectations, more likely to make dangerous threats or inflammatory claims. Any stalker’s threats can be an indicator of future violence; cyberstalking should be taken as seriously as physical stalking.
Can I Prevent Stalking?
While future behavior can be hard to predict, early displays of aggression or possessiveness in a relationship may lead to stalkerish behavior after the relationship is over. Even if these traits are not present, there are some things you can do that may lessen your likelihood of becoming a victim:
- Choose a genderless screen name
- Use a high-security password that includes letters and numbers, and change it frequently. Do not use your name, address, birthday or pet names in a password. Use a different password for each account you use
- Set privacy settings to high on social media platforms
- Refrain from using GPS-enabled location features on Facebook, Instagram or FourSquare
- Immediately log out of chat rooms if you encounter hostility; many sites will have a section or person you can report such unwanted behavior to – be sure to do so
- Guard your privacy closely and be selective about sharing personal information; use a genderless nickname online; do not give your phone number or work location to unknown parties or in chat rooms; meet online dates in public places
- Resist the urge to share racy or naked photos, as these are often used maliciously by stalkers after a relationship ends
- Do not respond to provocation by engaging with a stalker. Any contact, whether negative or positive, may encourage your stalker that your attention has been gained. State your intent to end contact and then block the individual’s access to you via phone, instant messaging and social media sites. Cell phone providers and Internet service providers are enabled with blocking features; contact the customer service of your cell provider to block specific numbers, and of your Internet provider to assist you with blocking individual IP addresses.
What if I think I am being cyberstalked?
If you feel nervous by the cyber-attention you are receiving, your gut instinct is probably correct. It can be difficult to distinguish wooing or romantic pursuit from cyberstalking, particularly before it escalates to something darker. However, if repeated attempts at contact and other harassment make you legitimately afraid and are negatively impacting your life, you do have legal rights.
If you are being targeted by a cyberstalker, there are ways to protect yourself. Read on for steps to reclaim your privacy and how to involve law enforcement if necessary.
- Save everything. While it may be tempting to discard any and all forms of contact from your stalker, these serve as evidence if you ever need it. Stalkers tend to be obsessive and repeat their behavior, and cyberstalking by definition requires a pattern of behavior that is damaging. Print every email, instant message exchange, Facebook post, chat room conversation.
- After printing this information, download it to an external disk drive.
- Save every text; use your phone’s locking feature to ensure they are not accidentally deleted. If you buy a new phone and the messages cannot be ported onto your new phone, keep the old phone.
- Save every voicemail. Consider software that converts them to MP3s for safekeeping.
- Keep a diary log with dates and times of each interaction.
- Carefully place any letters or cards in a sealed plastic bag and date the bag with magic marker.
- Take screen shots from any websites that display information that slanders you or impersonates you.
- Take photographs of any gifts (pleasant or unpleasant) that you receive. Print the photos and store in a safe place.
- Contact your Internet service provider, as well as your stalker’s if you know it. Most ISPs have Terms of Service agreements that prohibit harassment. At the least your stalker’s IP address can be blocked, and your stalker’s account may be disabled.
- Change your online identities with instant messengers, email accounts, dating services, social networking sites and message boards.
- Tell your friends and family that you are being cyberstalked. While some inconsiderate souls may think you are overreacting, it is important that people in your inner circle are aware of the activity.
- Consider changing your phone number; do not list it in public directories and share it only with trusted people.
- Research the cyberstalking laws in your state. If your stalker ever issues and implicit or stated threat, or if you feel that you or your family members are in danger, contact law enforcement.
Prudent use of your information online is the best defense against cyberstalking. Unfortunately, even the most careful Internet users may run afoul of a cyberstalker. Stay aware and be alert to any danger signals, and resist the urge to think that you are imagining your fear. Laws on cyberstalking are in their infancy, but U.S. states are addressing it as the real issue it can be; educate yourself on your state’s stand.