Cyberstalking: What You Need to Know to Stay Safe Online
Cyberstalking is a growing problem all over the world. Stalking has always been a serious issue, but new technology means many stalkers have now turned to digital forms of harassment. Although the format may be different, the results remain equally distressing for the victims.
There are various types of cyberstalking, and they are carried out on different online channels. Despite the harm it can cause to victims, preventative steps can be taken to reduce the risks, and there are also ways to deal with problems when they occur. This guide aims to provide a detailed overview of the modern problem of cyberstalking as well as essential information and resources that you can use to reduce the risks and deal with cyberstalking effectively.
Chapter 1: Cyberstalking Overview
The aim of any stalker is to harass their victim and cause them distress and even harm, and the same is true of cyberstalkers. An online stalker could be a person known to the victim, or it could be a complete stranger – it could even be someone living in another country.
Like stalking, cyberstalking tends to affect women in larger numbers. However, anyone can become a victim. Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHO@) provides statistics each year on cyberstalking victims in the USA, focusing on age, gender, race, forms of harassment, how problems are resolved and other details to provide a good overview of the problem and demonstrating that anyone can suffer from cyberstalking.
Cyberstalking is often linked with cyberbullying, but the general consensus is that cyberstalking goes much further and becomes more obsessive than cyberbullying. Although cyberbullying can be very serious, with cyberstalking there is often a greater need for the stalker to control their victims.
Chapter 2: Types of Cyberstalking
Cyberstalkers often harass their victims online via various platforms, including:
- Instant messaging
- Online dating sites
They may use these platforms to find information about the victim including their personal details, financial details, relationships, employment, social life, where they live and even where they are at a particular time.
Common types of stalking activities to look out for include:
- Taking over online accounts through guessing the victim’s password details.
- Setting up websites about the victim and publishing damaging information.
- Launching false profiles on social media sites.
- Pretending to be the victim in order to harm personal and work relationships.
- Making direct threats via email.
- Harassing friends, family members and work colleagues.
- Sending sexually inappropriate messages.
- Sending viruses and malware.
- Harassing the victim in chat rooms and forums.
- Using information on social media to find out where the victim will be at a given time.
One particularly serious problem is that posed by spyware. This is where malicious software is installed onto the victim's phone or computer and their data is then accessed without their knowledge. Sometimes the computer or device’s camera may be controlled by the stalker to spy into the victim's own private space, or the stalker may hack into the victim’s computer to steal information.
Whatever the type of cyberstalking activity, and whichever platform it is used on, it can be scary and intimidating for the victims. It can also affect self-confidence, damage relationships and cause significant levels of distress.
Chapter 3: Social Media Risks
Cyberstalkers often use social media to stalk their victims. Facebook stalkingis a phrase that is often used in light-hearted reference to the practice of checking out friends' account activity without them knowing. However, it can also refer to more serious online stalking.
Cyberstalkers can pretend to be someone else on Facebook and make friends with their victims, then follow all the information they post about themselves. This could reveal the events they are going to attend, as well as details about their relationships, hobbies and even personal details that can be harvested with ease.
Photos uploaded to Facebook can include details of where they are taken, providing stalkers with even more information about where their victims are located.
Stalkers could even use Facebook to target the victim's friends and family as part of a campaign of intimidation, or they could set up pages either pretending to be the victim or used to publish defamatory comments. At its simplest, harassment could involve posting offensive messages on the victim's Facebook profile.
If you experience harassment on Facebook, you can report a violation, including reporting a fake account pretending to be you. The details can be found on this page.
Foursquare & Geolocation Apps:
Services like Foursquare pose an even more specific risk of cyberstalking, as highlighted in an article published in The Guardian in 2010. The service has changed since then, but the article demonstrates how easy it was for a journalist to use the geolocation app to track a complete stranger, find out information about her and even locate her in a bar. This is a particular risk of geolocation apps that many people remain unaware of.
Other social networks like Twitter can also be used by cyberstalkers. Everything posted on Twitter is publicly available, and there is less control over who follows you. This means anything published on the site could be tracked by a cyberstalker, posing a threat to anyone who is unaware of the risks.
Chapter 4: Stay Safe: Cyberstalking Prevention Tips
Taking sensible precautions is the best way to avoid problems when it comes to reducing the risk of cyberstalking. None of these methods are foolproof, but they can be effective.
Remove Personal Data
Start by checking the information that is available about you online. Search in Google, look over social media accounts, and remove any information that is too revealing. This could involve removing your date of birth from social media sites and deleting blog posts you have written in the past. If you can find the information, anyone can – so try to keep personal information to an absolute minimum.
Secure Your Devices
Use updated antivirus software at all times. This can reduce the risk of malicious spyware being placed on your computer. Ensure you also take extra precautions such as not opening attachments in emails from strangers.
Use a password for your home Wi-Fi, and don't access sensitive websites while you are using a public Wi-Fi connection.
Control your physical computer. Use a password to block access when you are not present, even when you are at your desk at work. Do the same with your mobile phone and tablet.
Use Strong Passwords and Encryption
Use strong passwords on all your online accounts, including your email and social media accounts. Make sure they are long and random, and use a password management tool to keep track of them. Don't use the same password more than once because this could help a stalker to get access to more of your online accounts.
Set Privacy on High
Review privacy settings on all your social media accounts and ensure you only share information with people you really do know. When someone sends a friend request, make sure you know them and don’t let them into your network if you have any doubts.
Don't Reveal your Movements and Whereabouts
Be especially careful about uploading photos online that say where you are, and switch this feature off to be safer. Also be wary about publicly sharing details of events you will attend – this can be used not only by cyberstalkers but also by thieves.
Chapter 5: Cyberstalking & Children
Cyberstalking is a particularly sensitive issue when it comes to children. They are often unaware of the risks of their online activity, and if you are a parent it is your responsibility to educate them. To do this you could:
- Make sure they know about the risks and monitor their online activity.
- Explain what is inappropriate behaviour online.
- See who they are friends with on their social media accounts.
- Make sure their privacy settings are secure, and help them to do this if necessary.
- Password protect their phone and computer.
- If they keep a blog, advise them not to post any personal information because this could put them at greater risk.
- Search online to find what information is already available about them.
Always look out for signs of potential issues with your children that could suggest they are a victim of cyberstalking. These could include:
- Spending too much time online and in private.
- Getting phone calls at odd hours.
- Acting suspiciously when online.
- Receiving gifts from someone you don't know.
Most importantly, let them know that they can always tell you if they are unhappy about something or someone online so that you can investigate it further. Whether it is a case of cyberbullying or cyberstalking, the earlier you find out, the quicker you can act.
Chapter 6: What to Do If You Are a Victim
If you find that you are a victim of cyberstalking, the first thing to do is collect as much evidence as you can, including emails, social media posts, details from websites and screenshots. You can then use this to report the situation to the police.
If someone has created websites and blogs to harass you, you can try to find out more about them by using a tool like WhoIsHostingThis.com. Simply type in the URL and you can find out details about the host and maybe even the person behind the site. You can then contact the host to get the content removed, and you can also provide the details to the police.
If the harassment occurs on a social networking site, you should be able to report it. In Facebook, there is a ‘Report’ link that you will find near to the offending content. You can also report abusive behaviour in Twitter, and there is a guide to doing this on the website.
You may want to change your online details, including your email address and social media accounts. If you do this, make sure you use a strong password. You may even want to create accounts under a different name and let your real friends know who you are.
You could even try contacting your cyberstalker directly by responding to a post or email to explain that you do not want any more contact from them and that you will take legal action. However, do not be drawn into any on-going exchanges.
Chapter 7: Cyberstalking and the Law
There are various laws in countries around the world that are designed to take on cyberstalkers. Here are some details for laws in the UK and the USA.
In the UK
There are many laws in place for stalking, but it is only recently that cyberstalking has been recognised by new legislation that has made prosecuting offenders easier.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003 were all used to prosecute cyberstalkers. However, only the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, with its dedicated section on stalking, has brought UK legislation in line with that which exists in the USA.
This created two offences related to cyberstalking, and the Daily Mail reports that 10 stalkers a week are now facing trial since it came into force in November 2012. Those convicted can face six months in prison – or five years if the victims fear violence or are forced to change their lifestyles.
It goes further than the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 by defining stalking and the psychological damage it can cause. It is now an offence to contact, monitor emails, follow, spy on or watch someone if that leads to distress or alarm or has an adverse effect on their lives.
An article in The Independent also highlights how police are now being trained to deal with cyberstalking to provide more effective support for victims.
In the USA
Every state in the USA has a law for cyberbullying or cyberstalking, meaning stalkers can be successfully prosecuted. The laws vary from state to state, but there is growing awareness of the problem and the laws generally make it an offence to carry out any form of online harassment.
Further Reading & Resources
There are various resources where you can read more about cyberstalking and get support if you or someone you know has been a victim.UK Resources
The Network for Surviving Stalking is a registered charity in the UK that supports victims of stalking.
The National Centre for Cyberstalking Research provides research and analysis of the growing threat of cyberstalking. Its first major project was theElectronic Communication Harassment Observation(ECHO). Find a detailed analysis of the Electronic Communication Harassment Observation (ECHO) Survey 2011 here.
The City of London Policeprovide a good section on stalking and how to spot the warning signs.
The National Stalking Advocacy Service provides assistance to victims of stalking in England and Wales, with support provided by Independent Stalking Advocacy Caseworkers (ISACs).
Working to Halt Online Abuse was founded in 1997 and is a volunteer organisation that helps victims of cyberstalking.
The Stalking Resource Center provides information, help for victims and details on the use of technology for stalking.
CyberAngles has been providing online safety education since 1995.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service has a large section of resources relating to cyberstalking and cyberbullying.