Cyberstalking can be defined as threatening behavior or unwanted advances directed at another using the Internet and other forms of online and computer communications.
It shares some characteristics with stalking in that it is deliberate, persistent and personal. It involves the pursuit, harassment, or contact of others in an unsolicited fashion initially via the Internet and email.
Cyberstalkers target their victims through chat rooms, message boards, discussion forums, and e-mail. Cyberstalking takes many forms such as: threatening or obscene e-mail; spamming (in which a stalker sends a victim a multitude of junk e-mail); live chat harassment or flaming (online verbal abuse); leaving improper messages on message boards or in guest books; sending electronic viruses; sending unsolicited e-mail; tracing another person’s computer and Internet activity, and electronic identity theft.
Cyberstalking can intensify in chat rooms as stalkers systematically flood their target’s inbox with obscene, hateful, or threatening messages and images. A cyberstalker may further assume the identity of his or her victim by posting information (fictitious or not) and soliciting responses from the cybercommunity. Cyberstalkers may use information acquired online to further intimidate, harass, and threaten their victim via courier mail, phone calls, and physically appearing at a residence or work place.
The increasing use of the Internet and the ease with which it allows others unusual access to personal information, have made this form of stalking ever more accessible. Potential stalkers may find it easier to stalk via a remote device such as the Internet rather than to confront an actual person. You cannot stop the contact with a request. In fact, the more you protest or respond, the more rewarded the cyberstalker feels. The best response to cyberstalking is not to respond to the contact.
Cyberstalking falls in a gray area of law enforcement. Enforcement of most state and federal stalking laws requires that the victim be directly threatened with an act of violence. Very few law enforcement agencies can act if the threat is only implied. Regardless of whether you can get stalking laws enforced against cyberstalking, you must treat cyberstalking seriously and protect yourself. Cyberstalking may in fact be a precursor to stalking and must be taken seriously.
Prevention and Safety Tips
- Do not share personal information in public spaces anywhere online, nor give it to strangers, including in email or chat rooms. Do not use your real name or nickname as your screen name or user ID. Pick a name that is gender and age neutral. Do not post personal information as part of any user profile.
- Make sure that your ISP and IRC network have an acceptable use policy that prohibits cyberstalking. If your network fails to respond to your complaints, consider switching to a provider that is more responsive to user complaints.
- If a situation online becomes hostile, log off or surf elsewhere. If a situation places you in fear, contact your local law enforcement.
- If you are under the age of 18 you should tell your parents or another adult you trust about any harassment and/or threats.
- Experts suggest that in cases where the offender is known, victims should send the stalker a clear written warning. Specifically, victims should communicate that the contact is unwanted, and ask the perpetrator to cease sending communications of any kind. Victims should do this only once. Then, no matter the response, victims should under no circumstances ever communicate with the stalker again. Victims should save copies of this communication in both electronic and hard copy form.
- If the harassment continues, you may wish to file a complaint with the stalker’s Internet service provider, as well as with your own service provider. Many Internet service providers offer tools that filter or block communications from specific individuals.
- If you suspect you are a victim of online harassment or cyberstalking, you should start collecting all evidence and document all contact made by the stalker. Save all email, postings, or other communications in both electronic and hard-copy form. If possible, save all of the header information from emails and newsgroup postings. Record the dates and times of any contact with the stalker.
- You may also want to start a log of each communication explaining the situation in more detail. You may want to document how the harassment is affecting your life and what steps you have taken to stop the harassment.
- You may want to file a report with local law enforcement or contact the local prosecutor’s office to see what charges, if any, can be pursued. You should save copies of police reports and record all contact with law enforcement officials and the prosecutor’s office.
- If you are being continually harassed you may want to consider changing your email address, Internet service provider, a home phone number, and should examine the possibility of using encryption software or privacy protection programs. Any local computer store can offer a variety of protective software, options and suggestions. You may also want to learn how to use the filtering capabilities of email programs to block emails from certain addresses.
- Finally, under no circumstances should you agree to meet with the perpetrator face to face to “work it out,” or “talk.” No contact should ever be made with the stalker. Meeting a stalker in person can be very dangerous.