Cyberstalking: What Is Cyberstalking and What to Do if You're a Victim

Cyberstalking CriminalWe are spending more and more time online, thanks in part to easily accessible WiFi and smartphones. In fact, 73% of Americans say they go online daily - 21% say they are "constantly online," another 42% go online several times a day and 10% go online at least once per day. This increase in online activity has made people vulnerable to both cyberstalking and cyber harassment. Stalking and harassment are nothing new, but now perpetrators have the ability to do so anonymously online.

What Is Cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking is the use of social media, email, text messages, phone calls and other forms of electronic communication to repeatedly harass, threaten, pursue, or steal and expose a victim's information against their will. People who cyberstalk are motivated by feelings of anger, hatred, revenge, jealousy, obsession and often suffer from mental illness. Though they are occasionally strangers, cyberstalkers are more commonly known to the victim and could be a former spouse, an ex, or someone who has a grudge (like a former employee). They could also be fans - in many cases bloggers and social media celebrities can be cyberstalked by individuals.

How Is Cyberstalking Different From Cyberbullying and Cyber Harassment?

Cyberstalking is distinct from cyberbullying and cyber harassment. While cyberbullying can resemble cyberstalking, cyberbullying is only when the victim and perpetrator are both adolescents.

Cyber harassment becomes cyberstalking once there is a direct or implied physical threat of violence towards the victim. Many times, cyber harassers are referred to as "Internet Trolls." Trolls can be found anywhere online from gaming sites to social media and their main intent is to incite anger, hate and argument between others online. Cyber harassment can be a one-off comment on a social media post, which angered the commenter, or it can be a more prolonged assault against a person, where the cyber harasser follows or impersonates another person online in a number of different forums.

Facts About Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking can take many different forms, some of the most common are:

Doxxing or "dropping documents" - This is when someone anonymously publishes personal information about another person maliciously. Information can include the victim's full name, address, personal contact information, and other sensitive information. Doxxing is controversial since it is seen as both harassment and as a form of internet justice depending on who the victim is.

Impersonating - A cyberstalker may impersonate their victim on social media by hacking into their accounts or by creating new accounts. The stalker will then send messages and post content that is harassing, oftentimes the messages and content will be sexual.

Threatening physical violence - The cyberstalker will threaten physical violence, and in some cases death, towards the victim online or via text and phone calls. These threats can also spread to include harm against relatives and friends of the victim.

Identity theft and financial ruin - The cyberstalker can steal the victim's identity and put them into a state of financial ruin. With the Jamaican lottery phone scam and many other types of phone scams, victims are harassed by phone calls and texts messages and their friends and family are threatened harm until the victim has given all of their life savings.

Not surprisingly, women are the most frequent victims of cyberstalking. They accounted for 63% of victims, whereas men accounted for 37%. However, studies show that this is changing slightly.

Psychologically, cyberstalkers may provoke others online to also attack a victim. The anonymity of online forums and the ability to spoof phone numbers makes people act in a way that they normally wouldn't because they don't fear any consequences, and it leads to the creation of a mob mentality in many cases.

How to Prevent Cyberstalking

There are a number of steps that you can take to protect yourself against cyberstalking:

Be careful regarding sharing of personal information online - Take a look at your privacy settings on social media and be sure to only share personal information with trusted individuals. Avoid putting up personal contact information like your phone and email on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Usernames should also not be overly identifying, and when signing up for a website do not feel like you need to give more information than is required. Most sites will only require that you give an email and username and password to sign up - this is usually for safety purposes so that new passwords can be reset or abusive users can be blocked.

Use strong passwords - Don't use the same passwords for all of your online accounts. You can use a cloud-based password vault to create complex passwords and store them for you.

Don't participate in online arguments - If you see something online that you disagree with, or that you don't like either ignore it or report it to the content provider if it's inappropriate. Sites, like Facebook, make it easy to report or block posts that you find offensive. Getting into an argument online may make you a target for a cyber harasser.

Be careful when using online dating sites and apps - Don't share overly personal information including where you live and work, or photos that could be damaging. Cyberstalkers are frequently rejected lovers and exes.

Monitor your online reputation - Know what information is available about you online and take steps to ensure that your privacy is maintained. If your phone number is posted online and you don't want it to be, contact the site to have it removed.

What To Do if You’re a Victim of Cyberstalking

If you're a victim of cyberstalking there are a few things that you can do to stop it:

Change your account passwords - If one of your accounts has been compromised, immediately change your password to that account and any other accounts that you feel could be compromised (e.g., you use the same password for multiple accounts).

Know that it's not your fault - People who are victims of cyberstalking did nothing to bring on the repeated harassment and attacks they receive.

Leave the conversation - Don't engage with a troll or cyberstalker instead block them and report them if necessary. Most social media sites have a policy against harassment and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also have policies against cyberstalkers and can block them. If the harassment is via text messages and phone calls use a reverse look-up phone book, like CallerSmart, to identify the person behind the number and then block them. Never retaliate against a cyber harasser or cyberstalker since this will only continue the cycle.

Keep a record - If the harassment continues and there are physical threats made contact your local authorities and make sure you keep a record of the harassment. Although the the attacks and threats are online you can document them as evidence by taking screen shots.

Know your state's laws - Depending on where you live the laws regarding cyberstalking can be different. WHO@ (Working to Halt Online Abuse) has a database of U.S. laws regarding cyberstalking that you can search to see what the laws in your state are.

For more information on cyberstalking and how to protect yourself Wired Safety provides helpful resources. If you are a victim, the National Stalking Helpline can provide help and advice.