You’ve received another threatening message. Or maybe a physical letter. Perhaps your online stalker has even shown up near where you live or work. It doesn’t matter. All you know is that things are getting out of hand, fast. What can you do to prevent cyberstalking?
You’re not alone. About 41% of Americans are exposed to harassing behavior online at one point or another in their lives. Although most of them are subject to milder forms of abuse, like name-calling and purposeful embarrassment, at least 7% experience cyberstalking.
A serious crime, cyberstalking is methodical, purposeful, and obsessive. In many cases, it goes on for years. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to put up with it. By taking action immediately, you can help prevent an incident from escalating. Below, we talk about this growing crime in more detail, discuss laws that cover cyberstalking and provide step-by-step instructions on how you can protect yourself if you find yourself being stalked on the internet.
What Is Cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is a type of crime that involves the use of technology to harass or stalk someone. Most cyberstalkers want to make their victim feel embarrassed, annoyed or threatened. Typical forms of cyberstalking include false accusations, data manipulation, blackmail, threats, and monitoring someone’s online and offline activities.
Often, the victim has no way of knowing whether the cyberstalker is a stranger or someone they know in real life.
According to a 2003 paper “An Exploration of Predatory Behaviour in Cyberspace: Towards a Typology of Cyberstalkers” by Leroy McFarlane and Paul Bocij, cyberstalkers typically fall into one of four categories:
- Vindictive Cyberstalker. This group uses a wide range of methods to harass their victims, including mailbombing, spamming, identity theft, and even computer viruses. They’re also likely to stalk their targets offline. In many cases, harassment starts after a trivial discussion
- Composed Cyberstalker. The main goal of this cyberstalker is to cause irritation and annoyance to their victims. Cyberstalkers that fall within this group usually issue threats.
- Intimate Cyberstalker. These cyberstalkers try to win the attention or feelings of their target. They tend to know an awful lot about their victims and generally use dating sites, email, and web discussion groups. Interestingly, they can be split into two sub-groups: “ex-intimates” (ex-partners or ex-acquaintances) and “infatuates” (individuals searching for intimate relationships).
- Collective Cyberstalkers. These cyberstalkers operate in groups of at least two people. They usually have a motive for harassing their target. For example, they may feel like their victim wronged them in some way.
Are There Laws Against Cyberstalking?
Stalking and harassment are a criminal offense in all 50 states in the U.S. Many states include electronic means of communication within their stalking and harassment laws. Some states, like California and Illinois, have specific anti cyberstalking and harassment laws. Federal law also prohibits cyberstalking.
Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), a volunteer organization whose goal is to fight online harassment, has a comprehensive list of state and federal cyberstalking laws.
How Can You Stop a Cyberstalking Attack?
If you’re a victim of cyberstalking, don’t wait for the problem to go away. There are plenty of steps you can take to stop a cyberstalking attack today. These include, but are not limited to, blocking the cyberstalker on all platforms and removing your data from people search sites.
Here are eight steps that can help you put an end to your cyber abuse nightmare.
1. Don’t engage
The number one thing you should do the moment you realize that you’re being stalked online is to tell the cyberstalker to stop. You don’t need to give any explanations. Simply say something along the lines of “please do not contact me again.” Keep the message for your records.
Unfortunately, it’s more than likely that the cyberstalker won’t stop harassing you. That’s because most stalkers are desperate for attention, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
It’s crucial that you don’t respond to any more of their messages, even if the stalker threatens to contact your family, friends, or employers or expose sensitive information about you. Don’t ask anyone to contact the cyberstalker on your behalf, either. It’s not uncommon for harassers to claim that their victims are the ones harassing them, not the other way around.
2. Tell those around you
It’s a good idea to tell your family and friends that you’re being stalked online. Not only will they be able to give you the emotional support you need during this frightening time, but they’ll also know not to share any sensitive information about you with people they don’t know very well online. Cyberstalkers often try to get in touch with those close to their victim.
If you believe that your cyberstalker is going to start harassing you at work, or if it’s happening already, tell your employer.
3. Block the cyberstalker
Block the stalker on all channels and report their behavior to the respective platform. The majority of email service providers allow you to block an email address, too. Here’s how you can do that on Gmail.
If the cyberstalker has created a website to slander you, you can contact the web host directly (but first collect evidence — more on that below).
If things get very bad, you might want to consider quitting social media (and other platforms the cyberstalker has contacted you on) altogether. That’s what the actress Patricia Arquette had to do in 2011. After (an alleged) cyberstalking incident, she deactivated her Facebook. Before she did, she wrote, “I ask you not to friend anyone here that you don’t personally know!!! This is important!!! Just because they were on this page doesn’t really mean they are safe!”
4. Opt-out of data broker sites
Many cyberstalkers use data brokers and people search sites to find out more about their victims. People search sites have a ton of information about you, including your address, phone number, email address, marital status, income, and more.
Luckily, you can opt-out of most data broker sites. The process is tedious at best, but worth it. There’s nothing like knowing that no one can get their hands on your sensitive data.
Just know that you’ll have to repeat the opt-out process routinely, as data brokers relist people’s profiles. If you’re in a hurry, DeleteMe can opt-out of major data brokers on your behalf. DeleteMe’s privacy experts also check each database every few months, so you don’t have to worry that your name will reappear without you knowing.
5. Collect evidence
Your first instinct is probably to get rid of everything that your cyberstalker has sent you, including chat logs, emails, and maybe even physical mail. However, it’s vital that you save every communication you’ve received as it can prove to be invaluable evidence.
This includes screenshots of any social media profiles or websites that the cyberstalker has created in your name. Since screenshots can be easily doctored, you might also want to take a picture of the messages or sites on your device with another camera. Just to be on the safe side, back up all evidence on a USB stick.
Take note of any offline activity, like strangers lingering near your home, as well.
6. Assess your online security
As the cyberstalker gathers more information about you, they might try to hack into your online accounts and email. Having strong passwords and enabling two-factor authentication can help protect your online identity.
Speaking of online security, even if you’ve blocked your cyberstalker on all social media sites, you should still set all your accounts to private and don’t accept people you don’t know in real life as friends.
Also, turn off geolocation tagging and never make future plans (like when and where you’re going to go out for brunch) public. Be wary of the photos you post, as well. Tech-savvy cyberstalkers can analyze your photos and use Street View to figure out where you live. In 2019 a Japanese man allegedly located a young pop star he was obsessed with via the reflection in her eyes in a photo.
If you’re worried that someone is using spyware to track you, don’t use your computer or phone until a professional takes a good look at it.
7. Think about your offline safety, too
Cyberstalking can involve stalking in real-life, as well. Just think about: if a cyberstalker finds out your home address, all they have to do is put it into Google Maps to research your environment.
Take the time to assess your home security and avoid meeting with people you know only through the internet.
8. Call the police
If you’re afraid for your safety, you should call the police and victim services. Even if the police can’t prosecute the cyberstalker right away, your report will go on file, and the police will likely give you good advice.
How Can You Protect Against Cyberstalking In the Future?
The best way to protect yourself from being cyberstalked in the future is to reduce your digital footprint. This includes Googling your name to see what kind of information about you is out there and taking the necessary action to get anything you’re unhappy with removed.
While deleting information about you from private websites is usually tricky, it’s not impossible. Our blog post on How to Remove Personal Information from the Internet should help you get started.
Opting out of data brokers is typically easier, but more time-consuming. We have a guide on how to remove your profile from most data brokers and people search sites, but if you need help, we can do it for you.
Other than that, keep your social media profiles private, change your passwords often (a password manager is a good investment), and install good antivirus software. Also, never use public WiFi and consider setting up a P.O. box and using a Masked Email and phone number. Remember: if they can’t find you online or offline, they can’t stalk you.
For more advice and extensive resources, check out the following:
- Fight Cyberstalking is an online resource website for victims of cyberstalking. It has information on how to report a cyberstalker, online privacy and social networking safety tips, and more.
- Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) details state and federal laws concerning cyberstalking.
- The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center has a stalking incident and behavior log to help you track stalking-related events.
- The United States Postal Service has a guide on how to set up a P.O. box.
- WomensLaw provides information on domestic violence restraining orders.
- VictimConnect can help you learn about your rights as a victim.