What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is a form of online harassment which involves harassing a victim through the internet or other forms of electronic communications. Although it doesn’t involve physical contact, cyberstalking can cause substantial emotional distress and even involve serious criminal actions.
This form of cyberbullying can be carried out by someone you know or a complete stranger. With plenty of private information easily accessible online, cyberstalkers can stalk you online without you even knowing.
By simply typing your name into a search engine, they can find your social media accounts, phone number, address, and more. With this information, they can initiate unwanted contact, sending threatening private messages, and generally keep tabs on your online life. At least, this is how one form of cyberstalking can play out—there are, unfortunately, many different ways cyberstalkers can make their victims’ lives difficult.
Examples of cyberstalking
There is a wide range of cyberstalking behaviors one can encounter. With the immense popularity of social media platforms, social media stalking is one such example. The stalker can go as far as creating fake social media profiles to follow their victim, potentially committing identity theft, or even attempting to catfish them.
Cyberstalkers have also been known to create fake websites containing various, and often false, information about their victims. They may post real or fake photos and spread malicious rumors. They may even make false accusations or publish so-called revenge porn.
The more brazen cyberstalkers may send unsolicited text messages, inappropriate photos, and unwanted gifts. Some cases of cyberstalking escalate from online abuse to include in-person stalking.
Cyberstalking laws in the United States
Cyberstalking is considered a crime in the US and is regulated by both federal law and, in many cases, also state laws. Cyberstalking can be connected with similar offenses, such as physical stalking and domestic abuse, covered by federal laws.
One such federal law is the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA). This act classifies cyberstalking as part of the federal interstate stalking statute. The reauthorization act of 2013 added a criminal provision relating to stalking, including cyberstalking.
When it comes to the state level, cyberstalking laws can vary quite a bit. States with cyberstalking legislation include:
- New Hampshire
- New York
What to do if you are being cyberstalked?
Trust your gut and take things seriously
If you feel something isn’t right and encounter someone who seems to know too much about you, there is a high chance you are being stalked online. With cyberstalking being a serious crime, just like stalking in physical form, you should approach it with equal vigilance.
Ask the cyber stalker to stop
Although this may seem counterproductive, the first step you should take is to tell the person responsible for the unwanted contact to stop. This can be beneficial in preventing the perpetrator from later claiming ignorance, or acting as if they weren’t aware of the impact of their actions.
Unfortunately, it may not have the desired effect, especially if you are dealing with a disturbed individual with a propensity for harassment. Nevertheless, communicate your request clearly and concisely, avoiding mirroring the abusive behavior of the stalker.
Write down incidents and save evidence
If the situation ends up escalating, possibly requiring you to involve law enforcement agencies, you will need to have solid evidence of what’s been going on. So even though this may be unpleasant, document the incidents: take screenshots and save any physical items you received from the stalker.
Block and report
In the case of social media stalking or stalking through online forums, block the perpetrator and report their activities to the website owners. Make sure you block them on all the social network sites on which you have accounts.
Notify local law enforcement
The next step you’ll want to take is to head down to your local police department and file an official complaint. Even though the officers will most likely not be able to help you on the spot, having a report on record can be crucial if the cyber harassment persists or even gets worse.
Avoid using your own computer and cellphone
With cybercrimes, there is always the chance that your electronics, such as your computer and cellphone, have been compromised. To be sure your devices are safe, have a professional scan them to check for spyware and other types of malware.
If you have suspicions that the cyberstalker has, in fact, gained access to your devices, use a friend’s computer and consider purchasing a burner phone.
Change all your passwords
As there is the possibility that your accounts and passwords have been compromised, create new, strong, and unique passwords on all your online accounts, from social media accounts to banking accounts. Ensure you create long and complex passwords, avoiding ones that contain any personal information. Include upper and lowercase characters, numbers, and symbols, and make the passwords at least ten characters long. Use a password manager like NordPass to effortlessly create and keep track of all your passwords.
Mask your IP address with a virtual private network (VPN)
If the cybrestalker learns your IP address, he can seize your location and online identity. So whether you are browsing the web at home or on public Wi-Fi, use a VPN to mask your IP address, thus providing you with enhanced online safety.
Plan for your safety
Cyberstalkers can be unpredictable, so it’s a good idea to create a safety plan in case things escalate. Tell your closest friends and family about the situation so that they can act as witnesses if needed.
Seek counsel at your local rape crisis center, domestic violence shelter, or support groups. Organizations like these can help you create an emergency plan. Consider consulting with a mental health professional, as they can help provide support and guidance. Finally, familiarize yourself with what is cyberstalking to be better prepared in general.
Important: If you are in immediate danger, don’t hesitate to call 911.
How to prevent cyberstalking?
According to a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center on US adults, “41% of Americans have experienced online harassment in at least one of the six key ways that were measured.” More severe forms included physical threats, stalking, sustained harassment, and sexual harassment.
If you haven’t fallen victim to online harassment or cyberstalking, there is a significant chance you will at some point in your life. Taking steps to regain control over those of your personal details that are visible online can largely decrease this threat.
A lot of cyberstalking can happen through social media, so remaining vigilant on social media sites is crucial. Enable strong privacy settings, allowing only your closest friends to see your social media posts. Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know. And if you are suspicious about particular friend requests, reach out to that person through other means (like SMS).
To avoid being harassed online, whether through instant messaging or on public forums, opt for a gender-neutral screen name. This can make you less attractive to perpetrators.
As your cellphone may be providing the cyberstalker with your location, disable the geolocation settings on your device. If you are concerned that the stalker may try to learn your address through your letters or packages, use a post box address or office address to keep things private.
To keep your digital footprint just a bit cleaner, create a separate email address for your social media accounts so that, if it falls into the wrong hands, the rest of your personal data won’t be compromised.
Finally, check the web for your personal details. If you find things on third-party websites that you would prefer to have removed, submit a removal request. Also, consider removing yourself from data broker and people search sites, to make your private information less accessible.