Although online harassment and threats can take many forms, cyberstalking shares important characteristics with offline stalking. Many stalkers - online or off - are motivated by a desire to exert control over their victims and engage in similar types of behavior to accomplish this end. Given the enormous amount of personal information available through the Internet, a cyberstalker can easily locate private information about a potential victim with a few mouse clicks or key strokes.
The fact that cyberstalking does not involve physical contact may create the misperception that it is more benign than physical stalking. This is not necessarily true. As the Internet becomes an ever more integral part of our personal and professional lives, stalkers can take advantage of the ease of communications as well as increased access to personal information. In addition, the ease of use and non-confrontational, impersonal, and sometimes anonymous nature of Internet communications may remove disincentives to cyberstalking. Put another way, whereas a potential stalker may be unwilling or unable to confront a victim in person or on the telephone, he or she may have little hesitation sending harassing or threatening electronic communications to a victim. Finally, as with physical stalking, online harassment and threats may be a prelude to more serious behavior, including physical violence.
While there are many similarities between offline and online stalking, the Internet and other communications technologies provide new avenues for stalkers to pursue their victims.
The anonymity of the Internet also provides new opportunities for would-be cyberstalkers. A cyberstalker's true identity can be concealed by using different ISPs and/or by adopting different screen names. More experienced stalkers can use anonymous remailers that make it all-but-impossible to determine the true identity of the source of an e-mail or other electronic communication.
Anonymity leaves the cyberstalker in an advantageous position. Unbeknownst to the target, the perpetrator could be in another state, around the corner, or in the next cubicle at work. The perpetrator could be a former friend or lover, a total stranger met in a chat room, or simply a teenager playing a practical joke. The inability to identify the source of the harassment or threats could be particularly ominous to a cyberstalking victim, and the veil of anonymity might encourage the perpetrator to continue these acts. In addition, some perpetrators, armed with the knowledge that their identity is unknown, might be more willing to pursue the victim at work or home, and the Internet can provide substantial information to this end. Numerous websites will provide personal information, including unlisted telephone numbers and detailed directions to a home or office. For a fee, other websites promise to provide social security numbers, financial data, and other personal information.
You must clearly tell the harasser to stop
Generally speaking, it is unwise to communicate with a harasser. However, as soon as you determine that you are truly being harassed by someone, you must very clearly tell that person to stop. Simply say something like "Do not contact me in any way in the future" and leave it there. You do not need to explain why, just state that you do not want the person to contact you. Sometimes it is helpful to copy this message to the abuse department of the harasser's ISP. Keep a record of this message for your records. Do not respond to any further messages of any sort from the harasser. Don't have anyone else contact the harasser on your behalf. It is common for the harasser to claim that you are harassing him or her, but if you aren't contacting the person, it is clear that you aren't the harasser.
One of the first impulses many harassment victims have is to just delete any communications they've received, and that's a bad idea. It's important to save absolutely every communication you have with the harasser - email, chat logs, ICQ histories, anything. If the harasser has created a web site about you, save copies of it to your local system and have someone you trust who would testify in court for you if necessary to do the same. If you receive any phone calls from the harasser, have them traced immediately (your local phone company can tell you how to do that). If you receive any kind of postal mail or other offline communications, save them (with envelopes, boxes, etc.). Do not destroy any evidence - and do not handle it more than absolutely necessary or permit anyone else to do so. Immediately turn the evidence over to the police. Place envelopes, letters, etc. in plastic bags to protect any possible fingerprints.
Complain to the appropriate parties
It can at times be a little difficult for people to determine who the appropriate party is. If you're harassed in a chat room, contact whoever runs the server you were using. If you're harassed on any kind of instant messaging service, read the terms of service and harassment policies they've provided and use any contact address given there. If someone has created a web site to harass you, complain to the server where the site is hosted. If you're being harassed via email, complain to the sender's ISP and any email service (like Hotmail) used to send the messages. Please contact UMKC’s Victim Services Adjudication Advisor, Michelle Kroner, at 816.235.1652 if you need any assistance.
Determine your desired result
What do you want to have happen? You need to think about that. Be realistic. It's reasonable to expect that you can get the harasser to stop contacting you. It is reasonable to expect that you can increase your safety online and offline. It is not realistic to expect an apology from the harasser.
Tips to discuss if someone you know is in danger. Technology can be very helpful to victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking, however it is important to also consider how technology might be misused.
Trust your instincts. If you suspect the abusive person knows too much, it is possible that your phone, computer, email, or other activities are being monitored. Abusers and stalkers can act in incredibly persistent and creative ways to maintain power and control.
Plan for safety. Navigating violence, abuse, and stalking is very difficult and dangerous. If you or someone you know needs assistance, please contact UMKC’s Victim Services Adjudication Advisor, Michelle Kroner, at 816.235.1652. Advocates are also available at the National Domestic Violence Hotline and have been trained on technology issues, and can discuss options and help you in your safety planning. (National DV Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 800-787-3224)
Take precautions if you have a "techy" abuser. If computers and technology are a profession or a hobby for the abuser/stalker, trust your instincts. If you think he/she may be monitoring or tracking you, talk to the Victim Services Adjudication Advisor, a hotline advocate or the police.
Use a safer computer. If anyone abusive has access to your computer, he/she might be monitoring your computer activities. Try to use a safer computer when you look for help, a new place to live, etc. It may be safest to use a computer at a public library, community center, or Internet cafe.
Create a new email account. If you suspect that anyone abusive can access your email, consider creating an additional email account on a safer computer. Do not create or check this new email from a computer your abuser could access, in case it is monitored. Use an anonymous name, and account: (example: firstname.lastname@example.org, not YourRealName@email.com). Look for free web-based email accounts, and do not provide detailed information about yourself.
Check your cell phone settings. If you are using a cell phone provided by the abusive person, consider turning it off when not in use. Also many phones allow you to "lock" the keys so a phone won't automatically answer or call if it is bumped. When on, check the phone settings; if your phone has an optional location service, you may want to switch the location feature off/on via phone settings or by turning your phone on and off.
Change passwords & pin numbers. Some abusers use victim's email and other accounts to impersonate and cause harm. If anyone abusive knows or could guess your passwords, change them quickly and frequently. Think about any password protected accounts - online banking, voicemail, etc.
Minimize use of cordless phones or baby monitors. If you don't want others to overhear your conversations, turn baby monitors off when not in use and use a traditional corded phone for sensitive conversations.
Use a donated or new cell phone. When making or receiving private calls or arranging escape plans, try not to use a shared or family cell phone because cell phone billing records and phone logs might reveal your plans to an abuser. Contact your local hotline program to learn about donation programs that provide new cell phones and/or prepaid phone cards to victims of abuse and stalking.
Ask about your records and data. Many court systems and government agencies are publishing records to the Internet. Ask agencies how they protect or publish your records and request that court, government, post office and others seal or restrict access to your files to protect your safety.
Get a private mailbox and don't give out your real address. When asked by businesses, doctors, and others for your address, have a private mailbox address or a safer address to give them. Try to keep your true residential address out of national databases.
Search for your name on the Internet. Major search engines such as "Google" or "Yahoo" may have links to your contact information. Search for your name in quotation marks: "Full Name". Check phone directory pages because unlisted numbers might be listed if you have given the number to anyone.