As the world becomes more dependent on technology as a means of communication and recreation, computer crime has been increasing at an alarming rate. One type of computer crime that has the potential to cause immense distress and damage is termed cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is defined as using the Internet or other electronic means as a way to harass, intimidate, threaten, monitor or make unwanted advances towards another. It can involve direct communications through e-mails, chat rooms, bulletin boards or social sites such as Facebook, the surreptitious gathering of information regarding the target, or covert observation.
Although in many cases of real-life or off-line stalking, the use of the computer is only one of the means used to harass the victim, harassment in cyberspace is growing. For the victim, who does not know if the harasser is on the other side of the globe or living next door, the fear or embarrassment is real. This fear is justified as there are many incidents where harassment that has originated in cyberspace has crossed into offline, real-life physical stalking. Whilst a number of countries are attempting to incorporate this form of harassment into their anti-stalking legislation, the laws against cyberstalking in many jurisdictions are either limited or non-existent due to the prerequisite in most anti-stalking laws of their being a credible threat or due to the failure of legislative structures to keep up with technology. The effects of cyberstalking can be identical to those in real-life stalking situations (see Impact of stalking on victims) because the stalking occurs online does not make it any less terrifying or damaging. In fact, with the Internet reaching millions of people, the damage can be far wider reaching and enduring.
Cyberstalkers often work under the assumption that they are anonymous and often they are. This means that it is up to you to protect yourself from this form of harassment. However, if you find that you are being stalked online, it is crucial that you take appropriate action to bring it to an end. Some information is outlined below and additional information can be found at the US-based Stalking Resource Center’s cyberstalking page and also via the links at the bottom of the Victim Resources page.
Motivations for online harassment
- Seeking a romantic attachment
- Rejected partner trying to reconcile
- Rejected partner seeking revenge
- Delusional or imagined attachment to the victim, be it romantic or another connection
- Revenge for actual or perceived injustices
- Hate or intolerance towards a specific group
- Random attacks – the victim being in the wrong place at the wrong time
Types of harassing online behaviours
Unsolicited e-mails involving contacting someone person against their wishes
Spamming – sending bulk messages to someone which may jam their e-mail address or make it hard to find legitimate communications.
Flaming – on-line verbal abuse.
Infecting the victim’s computer with malicious programs, such as Trojans, keyloggers, spyware or viruses. These programs can allow the stalker to remotely monitor the victim’s computer use down to every keystroke (which can include the victim’s address, planned activities, credit card details or people they communicate with) or download private data stored on the victim’s computer or control the functions of the computer (e.g. turn on webcams). This information can be used to impersonate the victim online. Viruses or worms can also be used to cause damage to the victim’s computer.
Identity fraud which can involve a wide range of activities, including posting communications as if they are from victim that may include personal ads of items for sale or of a sexually explicit or provocative nature, bidding in on-line auctions in the victim’s name, or simply communicating with others as if they were the victim.
Spreading rumours or revealing extremely personal information or posting intimate photographs.
Abusive messages that attack the victim’s reputation personally or in the workplace.
Threats to harm the victim or someone they care for either physically, by reputation or some other means.
Many people leave themselves vulnerable to on-line harassment. Tips to increase your online security include:
- Always have the most up-to-date virus and firewall protection from a reputable source.
- Never share personal information in on-line profiles or public spaces. You should be suspicious of anyone who is pushing you to reveal details of your private life.
- Password protect all accounts including cell/mobile phones, land lines, e-mails, banking and credit cards. Use nonsense passwords for your accounts that include a combination of numbers, symbols, and letters. Change your password/s regularly and do not use the same password for different accounts. NEVER give your passwords to anyone and make “reminder questions” difficult for anyone to guess.
- Remember that any information you provide on the Internet, even to trusted or popular sites, is potentially susceptible to hackers.
- Never open attachments from people you do not know or trust.
- If you are ending an abusive relationship, change all of your passwords to something the stalker could not know or guess.
- Choose screen names that are gender and age neutral.
- Do not flirt on-line and be careful of what you post. Once it is out there, it is difficult or impossible to take back.
- Ask your friends never to give out your details to anyone and be discerning regarding who you accept as friends on social pages.
- Make sure your Internet Service Provider (ISP) has an acceptable policy prohibiting cyberstalking.
- Check the status of your credit card account regularly and keep a check on purchases you make. If there are any irregularities, notify your bank.
- If someone knows your phone number, it is technically possible to tap into your GPS locator, thus knowing where you are at any time. If you are concerned about this , turn off your GPS application. If you really need this service, get another device that cannot be traced.
- If you are using dating websites, set up a dedicated e-mail for that purpose. Do not give out any personal information at all. If you do arrange to meet someone, do so in a safe public environment and let someone else know what you are doing in advance. Be careful not to be followed home. If you begin to talk to someone you have met online on the telephone, block your user ID or preferably use a pre-paid, non-traceable number on a simple phone.
- Be aware of what information about you is available online. Google your name in quotes, e.g. “Joe Bloggs”, and review the information that is on the net. Do the same with all variations of your home address, phone number and combinations of the two, using quotation marks, hyphens and underscores. If you have children, do the same with their names. Another site to explore is Dogpile.
- If you have a website or blog, use a counter that will record all incoming traffic and allow you to view who is accessing your site.
What to do if you are being stalking online.
The golden rule here is not to make the mistake of underestimating the seriousness of the situation. Go with your instinct. If you feel uncomfortable, end all communications immediately. If you think that you are being stalked on-line, the following steps are recommended:
- Give a clear message to the person that is not rude, insulting or personal, that they must stop contacting you. Do not respond to them in any form after that.
- Tell other people what is happening, so they do not give out any information about you.
- Change your e-mail address to one that does not readily identify who you are, and only give it to those you trust completely.
- Save all communications with the harasser and keep a hard copy that is not on your computer.
- Block or filter all messages.
- If you are being harassed via e-mail, visit a site such as www.staysmartonline.gov.au for advice or SpamCop, which will determine the point of origin of a message and generate a report that is sent to the appropriate system administrator.
- File a complaint with the harasser’s ISP or the administrator of the on-line community.
- If you genuinely believe that you might be at risk of physical harm, contact the local police.
- Keep a non-computerised log of the harassment (or one on another computer that is not on-line). This can be used as evidence, should the case go to court.
- Keep documentary evidence of any contacts with Internet system administrators and/or police. Again, not only on your computer.