Addressing Cyberstalking and Online Harassment

In today’s world where most internet users freely give out information about their daily lives, upload images of themselves and friends and often chat with strangers, the boundaries between our online personas and personal privacy quickly become blurred. In some unfortunate and even scary cases, innocent people have found themselves victims of cyberstalking and other types of harassment online. Just as stalking in the real world consists of persistent and unwanted pursuance, cyberstalking involves similar activities online; a constant barrage of nasty or unwanted online communications, slander and threats and all types of cyberstalking. Procuring a person’s personal details for the main purpose of harassing them or impersonating them should also be addressed as soon as possible. If it is allowed to go on, in some cases cyberstalking can even turn into a physical danger or one involving blackmail against a person’s job, relationships, reputation or personal security. Never be afraid or embarrassed to seek appropriate help to put a stop to online harassment. This article serves as a guide on how to protect oneself online and how to seek help against online intimidation.

Email Filters

Although we often think of spam as a minor annoyance, many people do get fooled by more sophisticated types of spam that appear entirely legitimate. While some spam entices people to give away personal and confidential information, others trick users into clicking links or downloading files that can then lead to viruses, hackers and more. Most mainstream email services today offer a tool called email filters. With email filters, users can determine that emails containing certain giveaway key words or phrase should automatically be redirected to the Spam or Trash folders. When using email filters, remember to regularly update them. For example, if a spam email does evade the filters and end up in the inbox, don’t simply delete it. Mark it as spam to update the filters and then delete it. When in doubt about an email or its contents, it’s usually safer to delete it. Some spam may even appear to originate from someone the user personally knows. If it asks for information or suggests clicking a link or downloading a file, contact that person first to verify that they really and intentionally sent that email. 

Personal Information and Social Media

Although services such as Facebook and Twitter seem like casual, friendly environments, remember that there are always malicious people who try to obtain personal information about users for dishonest purposes. How do we get around it? Simple – don’t post personal details on unsecure websites. Birthdays, mailing addresses, emails, phone numbers, banking details, credit card numbers, job details and information about children are all forms of personal details that can be taken by cyberstalkers. Perhaps one of the most common but easiest ways to get into trouble is when users inform their social networks of when they are heading off on vacation. Anyone bent on illegal activities could easily target that person’s home, knowing exactly when they will be away. When posting online, users should also be careful of what they say. A slur against their boss or the company they work for could easily turn into blackmail or a lost job.

Online Privacy Settings

When thinking about online privacy settings, consider this: would you walk around downtown handing out your personal details to strangers or proclaiming it through a microphone? Would you want professional colleagues or potential school or work associates reading your posts or browsing through images of the drunken party last night? If not, consider taking the time to configure online privacy settings for each social network used. It barely takes a few minutes but it makes a world of difference. Some networks are smart enough now that they allow users to choose which groups of people can view certain posts or images. Don’t be afraid to use the Block or Delete features in case of harassment. It is always best to keep profiles private so that anyone who is not an accepted friend will not be able to view details, posts or images.

Notifying the Authorities

Users who suspect that they may be victims of cyberstalking or other types of online harassment should try to collect copies of any communications from the stalker (even if the person is unknown to them). Any repeated and unwanted behavior from another person online that causes fear, distress, threat or danger constitutes online harassment. Do not try to argue or reason with them. It is far better to cut off communication and block them from all online accounts. The next step is to contact your Internet service provider to inform them of the issue. They usually have the resources to investigate and find out who is behind the unwanted attacks and who their ISP is. With that information, users can then notify the attacker’s ISP so that they can take action against that person. There are also several organizations (listed below) in the United States that fight online harassment and cyberbullying. Contact one of these groups and ask their help in proceeding against the attacker.

Legal and Additional Action

In extreme cases, such as threats of physical violence against the user, their family or friends or personal property, contact the police and provide them with documentation of the unwanted actions and any information provided from the ISPs. If the ISP or police can identify the attacker, the victim can sue them for emotional or physical damages. If the unwanted behavior continues, speak to the police about a formal investigation. In some cases, a judge may also allow a restraining order in both physical and virtual worlds to ensure the safety of the victim. 

Additional Resources

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