What Is Cyberstalking?

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What Is Cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking refers to the use of the internet and other technologies to harass or stalk another person online, and is potentially a crime in the United States. This online harassment, which is an extension of cyberbullying and in-person stalking, can take the form of e-mails, text messages, social media posts, and more and is often methodical, deliberate, and persistent.

Most of the time, the interactions do not end even if the recipient expresses their displeasure or asks the person to stop. The content directed at the target is often inappropriate and sometimes even disturbing, which can leave the person feeling fearful, distressed, anxious, and worried.

What's more, cyberstalking is a growing problem. According to the Pew Research Center 4 out of 10 Americans have experienced online harassment and 62% of them consider it a significant issue.

While some of the online harassment that people in the survey experienced was just nuisance behaviors, nearly 1 in 4 Americans said they had experienced severe forms of online harassment. These actions included physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking.

Examples of Cyberstalking

When it comes to cyberstalking, those who engage in this behavior use a variety of tactics and techniques to harass, humiliate, intimidate, and control their targets. In fact, many of those who engage in cyberstalking are technologically savvy as well as creative and come up with a multitude of ways to torment and harass their targets. Here are some examples of things people who cyberstalk might do:

  • Post rude, offensive, or suggestive comments online
  • Follow the target online by joining the same groups and forums
  • Send threatening, controlling, or lewd messages or emails to the target
  • Use technology to threaten or blackmail the target
  • Tag the target in posts excessively, even if they have nothing to do with them
  • Comment on or like everything the target posts online
  • Create fake accounts to follow the target on social media
  • Message the target repeatedly
  • Hack into or hijack the target's online accounts
  • Attempt to extort sex or explicit photos
  • Send unwanted gifts or items to the target
  • Release confidential information online
  • Post or distribute real or fake photos of the target
  • Bombard the target with sexually explicit photos of themselves
  • Create fake posts designed to shame the victim
  • Track the target's online movements by installing tracking devices
  • Hack into the target's camera on their laptop or smartphone as a way to secretly record them
  • Continue the harassing behavior even after being asked to stop

Consequences of Cyberstalking

Just like stalking, cyberstalking has the potential to cause a wide range of physical and emotional consequences for those who are targeted. For instance, it's not uncommon for those who are being harassed online to experience anger, fear, and confusion. They also might have trouble sleeping and even complain of stomach trouble.

The consequences of cyberstalking also impact a person's mental health and overall wellbeing. Frequently, people who have been a target of cyberstalking experience distress, anxiety, and depression.

There are even reports that targets of cyberstalking may experience post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation. If you are experiencing cyberstalking, it's important that you reach out for help. You can contact the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-855-4-VICTIM (1-855-484-2846). And, if you or a loved one are in immediate danger be sure to call 911 right way.

You also should consider getting help from a mental health professional. They can help you process your feelings as well as provide support and guidance for what you're experiencing.

How to Prevent Cyberstalking

When it comes to preventing cyberstalking, it's important that you take the necessary precautions to protect yourself online. Although it's not possible to completely prevent cyberstalking from occurring, there are steps you can take to increase your security and reduce the likelihood of it happening.

Make Security a Priority

The first step in preventing cyberstalking is to ensure that your devices and your online accounts are as secure as possible. Here are some steps you should consider taking.

  • Create strong passwords. Make sure you have strong passwords for all your online accounts as well as strong passwords for your devices. Then, set a reminder on your phone to regularly change your passwords. Choose passwords that would be difficult to guess but are easy for you to remember.
  • Be sure to log out every time. It may seem like a pain, but make sure you log out of email, social media accounts, and other online accounts after using them. This way, if someone were able to get into your device they would not have easy access to your accounts.
  • Keep track of your devices. Don't leave your phone sitting on your desk at work or walk away from an open laptop. It only takes a minute or two for someone to install a tracking device or hack your device. So, make sure you keep these things in your possession or that you secure them in some way.
  • Use caution on public wifi. Recognize the fact that if you use public wifi at hotels or at the local coffee shop, you are putting yourself at risk for hacking. Try to refrain from using public wifi or invest in VPN.
  • Practice online safety habits. In other words, make it a priority to only accept friend requests from people you know and keep your posts private. You also should consider having one email address that is specifically for your online activity. Use this email when you do your online shopping or join loyalty programs.

Practice Good Digital Hygiene

In order to protect yourself from cyberstalking, it's important to practice good digital hygiene. What this means, is that you are aware of the digital footprints you're creating online and you're taking steps to protect your accounts and your identity. Here are some things you should be doing on a regular basis.

  • Take advantage of security settings. Go through each of your online accounts—especially your social media accounts—and ensure that you are using the strongest privacy settings as possible. You can even establish settings where people cannot tag you or post pictures of you without your approval first.
  • Create generic screen names. Rather than using your full name online, consider developing a gender-neutral screen name or pseudonym. By doing so, you are making it harder for people to find you online. You also should leave the optional sections, like your date of birth or your hometown, blank.
  • Keep locations secure. Consider disabling the geolocation settings in photos. You also should refrain from posting your location in real time and instead post photos showing where you have been after the fact.
  • Be careful with online dating sites. Refrain from using your full name on online dating sites. You also should avoid giving out personal information like your last name, address, email, and telephone number until you have met in person and established a level of trust.
  • Perform a social media audit. It's always a good idea to go through your social media accounts and remove photos or posts that provide too much information about you or that create an image you don't want out there. Keep in mind, too, that even if you have blocked someone on social media, they may be able to still see your account by using another person's account or by creating a fake profile.

How to Cope With Cyberstalking

Online anonymity makes it challenging to trace cyberstalking back to a particular person, but there are still things you can do to increase your safety and combat what you're experiencing. Here's everything you need to know about dealing with cyberstalking.

Set Up Roadblocks

The first step to addressing the cyberstalking you're experiencing is to do what you can to put an end to the interactions with the person cyberstalking you. While they may still find other ways to reach you, you can at least make it harder for them to contact you. Try to set up these roadblocks to cyberstalking.

  • Tell the person to stop. Respond only once to the person cyberstalking you and tell them to stop contacting you. You don't need to say anything specific or explain your answer, just ask them to never contact you again.
  • Block the person. Make sure you block the person cyberstalking you from all your accounts. You should block them on social media and on your smartphone.
  • Refuse to respond to any contact. If the person cyberstalking continues to find ways to contact you, do not respond to anything they post or send you.
  • Change email address and screen names. Consider getting a new email address and changing your online screen names to make it harder for the person cyberstalking you to reach you.

Increase Security

It's important to remember that people who engage in cyberstalking are already crossing a number of personal boundaries in order to make contact with you. For this reason, you need to do everything you can to increase your safety.

You also should prepare yourself for the possibility that their online harassment could escalate to in-person stalking. So, make sure you're also taking steps to keep yourself safe at home, school, and work. It may even help to create a safety plan. Here are some other things you can do:

  • Change passwords. Even if your accounts have not been breeched you should change all your passwords and continue to change them on a regular basis.
  • Consider suspending online accounts. If you are able, you should consider suspending your social media accounts or at least taking a break for them for a while. If you are not active online, it's harder for the person cyberstalking you to reach you.
  • Get your devices checked. Before you use your devices again you should have them checked out by a professional to ensure the person harassing you did not install tracking devices or hack your computer in some way.

Take Action

If you have asked the person cyberstalking you to stop and their behavior continues, it's important to take action against them. This includes contacting the appropriate authorities and collecting evidence of their actions. You also may want to consider talking with an attorney.

Here are the key points that will need addressed when taking action. Your local law enforcement can let you know if there is anything else you can do in order to stay safe.

  • Save evidence of everything. Even though you may feel like destroying everything, it's important to keep copies of everything the person cyberstalking you has sent. Make a copy for yourself and a copy for law enforcement.
  • Notify your local police. It's important to notify the police and file an official complaint if you're being cyberstalked. Even if they cannot do anything right away, having an official complaint on file is important if the behavior persists or escalates.
  • Report them to the site or service they used. If the person cyberstalking you harassed you through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, YouTube, Gmail, or some other method, let the appropriate authorities know what you're experiencing. Many times, these organizations take complaints of cyberstalking seriously and will address the matter.

Cyberstalking Laws

Even though there is not a specific federal law against cyberstalking, there are laws that can be used to prosecute those who engage in cyberstalking.

For instance, the federal law against stalking is often used in these cases. This law states that anyone who uses electronic communications technology to engage in conduct that causes a person reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury or “causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress to a person," could face imprisonment.

There are other federal laws that could be applied to cyberstalking cases as well. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act could be used to charge someone if the target has been secretly recorded using their own computer or in situations where the perpetrator gained access to sexual photos or videos through unauthorized access to the target's computer.

Likewise, a person may be charged with extortion if they publish or threaten to publish private photos or videos of another person with the intention of forcing them to do something they don't want to do, especially if they communicated through interstate commerce channels like phones, computers, or the internet.

There also is a statute that indicates that it is a crime to use a telephone, the internet, or any other telecommunications device to annoy, abuse, harass, or threaten another person. Meanwhile, anyone who engages in caller ID spoofing—meaning they disguise the number that appears on the target's caller ID— could be charged with a crime.

As for state laws, those vary from state to state. If you are curious about your state's cyberstalking laws, contact your local police department. They should be able to tell you what laws your state has to address cyberstalking.

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