What is Cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking refers to the use of the Internet, e-mail, or other telecommunication technologies to harass or stalk another person. It is not the mere annoyance of unsolicited e-mail. It is methodical, deliberate, and persistent. The communications, whether from someone known or unknown, do not stop even after the recipient has asked the sender to cease all contacts, and are often filled with inappropriate, and sometimes disturbing, content. Cyberstalking is an extension of the physical form of stalking.

It is estimated that there may potentially be tens or even hundreds of thousands of cyberstalking victims in the United States. A cyberstalker only needs access to a computer and a modem. Due to the enormous amount of personal information available through the Internet, a cyberstalker can easily locate private information about a potential victim with a few mouse clicks or key strokes. Information is power, and stalking of any kind is about power and control. There is little security on-line. Turning on a computer can expose anyone to harassment. Everyone who receives e-mail or uses the Internet is susceptible to cyberstalking.

Cyberstalkers use a variety of techniques. They may initially use the Internet to identify and track their victims. They may then send unsolicited e-mails, including hate, obscene or threatening mail. Live chat harassment abuses the victim directly or through electronic sabotage (for example, flooding the Internet chat channel to disrupt the victim’s conversation). With newsgroups, the cyberstalker can create postings about the victim or start rumors that spread through the bulletin board system. A cyberstalker may also set up a web page on the victim with personal or fictitious information or solicitations to readers. Another technique is to assume the victim’s persona on-line, such as in chat rooms, for the purpose of discrediting the victim’s reputation, posting details about the victim, or soliciting unwanted contacts from others. Cyberstalking is a course of conduct that takes place over a period of time and involves repeated, deliberate attempts to cause distress to the victim.

The rapidly advancing technology also makes it possible for abusers to use Spyware which is computer software or possibly a hardware device that allows someone to monitor and get information about someone else’s computer use. The presence of the Spyware is usually totally unknown to the victim. Once installed, the Spyware can allow the abuser to monitor what is done on the computer, cell phone or other handheld devices. This is usually done remotely, so that the victim remains unaware that he/she is being monitored.

Additionally, technology continues to produce cameras that can be hidden in smaller and less obvious places, such as a child’s toy, the bedroom lamp or smoke detector. This makes it possible for abusers to obtain photographs which can then be enhanced and/or modified using various programs. A victim might find these pictures on offensive websites, posted on the victim’s own webpage or distributed throughout the Internet. Some of the cameras also have built-in microphones so the abuser can hear what is being said as well as take pictures.

The fact that cyberstalking does not involve physical contact may create the misperception that it is less threatening or less dangerous than physical stalking. Cyberstalking is just as frightening and potentially as dangerous as a stalker at the victim’s front door. The psychological torment is very real, even in the absence of a distinct physical threat. It totally disrupts a victim’s life and peace of mind. Cyberstalking presents a range of physical, emotional, and psychological trauma for the victim, who may begin to develop or experience:

  • Sleep disturbances,
  • Hyper vigilance,
  • Recurring nightmares,
  • High Levels of stress,
  • Eating disturbances,
  • A feeling of being out of control,
  • A pervasive sense of the loss of personal safety

What Should You Do If You Are A Victim of On-line Stalking?

If you are being harassed on-line, there are several things you should do.

1.  Trust your instincts.
If you suspect that someone knows too much about you and/or your activities, it is possible that you are being monitored.

2.  Plan for Safety.
Advocates at your local rape crisis center or domestic violence shelter are available to help you develop a safety plan. You can also use national hotlines such as 1-800-656-HOPE, the National Sexual Assault Hotline or a website such as www.fris.org or www.rainn.org.

3.  Be extra cautious if your abuser is very technologically savvy.
Again trust your instincts. You may want to talk to an advocate or to the police.

4.  Use a safer computer.
If you suspect that your computer is compromised, use a computer at the public library, church, or a community center.

5.  Create a new email account(s).
Look for free web-based email accounts. Use an anonymous name and don’t provide much information in the profiles that an abuser could use to find you.

6.  Check your cell phone settings.
Consider turning it off when not in use. If your phone has GPS enabled, consider turning it off.

7.  Change passwords and pin numbers.
Use gender neutral passwords. Try to avoid using birth dates, numbers or phrases that your abuser may recognize. Don’t give your passwords to anyone and keep them in a safe, not easily accessed place.

8.  Minimize the use of cordless phones and baby monitors.
Turn these devices off if you do not want your conversation overheard. Use a corded telephone whenever you want your conversation to be more private.

9.  Use a donated or new cell phone.
If the local rape crisis center or shelter provides cell phones or if you can obtain a new phone, do so. Consider the use of a prepaid phone or phone cards as well.

10. Ask about your records and date.
Many court systems and government agencies are publishing records to the Internet. Ask agencies about their policies regarding publishing and protection of victim records. Find out if there are ways that your records can be sealed or if access can be restricted in some way to protect your safety.

11. Get a private mailbox and don’t give out your real address.  This will give you a safer address to give out to doctors, businesses, etc. Try to keep your actual address out of national databases.

12. Search for your name on the Internet. This can help you determine what information is online and whether search engines have access to your contact information.

In order to better protect yourself online:

  • Use a gender-neutral screen name.
  • Never give your password to anyone, especially if someone sends you an instant message (IM).
  • Don’t provide your credit card number or other identifying information as proof of age to access or subscribe to a web site run by a company with which you are unfamiliar.
  • Tell children not give out their real name, address, or phone number over the Internet without permission.
  • Don’t give your primary e-mail address out to anyone you don’t know.
  • Spend time on newsgroups, mailing lists, and chat rooms as a “silent” observer before speaking or posting messages.
  • When you do participate on-line, only type what you would say to someone in person.
  • Don’t respond to an e-mail from a stranger; when you reply, you are verifying your e-mail address to the sender.
  • On a regular basis (at least once a month), type your name into Internet search engines to see what information, if any, pops up. To have your name removed from any directories, contact each search engine on which you are listed and request to be removed.

(Information in this section taken from West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services,www.fris.org)