What is Cyberstalking and How to Protect Yourself from Cyberstalkers
Table of Contents
- By Dawna M. Roberts
- Apr 14, 2022
As the world shifts to the digital landscape, it takes our daily lives and communications along for the ride. While this is beneficial for the most part, it carries some nasty consequences as well. One of the most dangerous issues is that the internet has enhanced people’s information gathering and made it far easier to harass and endanger others anonymously.
Cyberstalking is one of the most common cybercrimes. It’s hard to detect, hard to prove, and highly destructive to the victim’s state of mind. This manual will outline everything you need to know about cyberstalking and how to handle it if it happens to you.
What is Cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is a crime where someone follows someone around using digital platforms such as text messages, email, social media, phone calls, forums, and other online technologies. Often cyberstalkers use fake profiles to remain anonymous.
Cyberstalkers often do this to harass, embarrass, or manipulate someone. They shower their target with unwanted and excessive attention leading to anxiety and fear. The line between online nuisances and cyberstalking can be subjective and often left up to the eye test.
Because the interactions are one-sided and unstable, it's normal for the harassment to continue despite the victim confronting their stalker directly.
Cyberbullying vs. Cyberstalking
Cyberstalking is often rooted in obsession. The stalker becomes fixated on an individual and collects large amounts of personal information on their target by crossing privacy barriers. They investigate social and professional accounts to learn about relationship history, age, current location, and special dates.
Stalkers use this information to follow people and possibly make contact by "coincidence." Other times, cyberstalkers infiltrate the victim's online social circles to build a connection or destroy their reputation. Cyberstalking isn't explicitly designed to harm the victim, but the obsession can often lead to extreme and dangerous actions.
While cyberstalking sometimes lacks the intent to harm, cyberbullying is a frequent and repeated attack on the target. Bullies abuse their victims through online insults, blackmail, impersonation, and other tactics.
Cyberbullying also places a much greater emphasis on social dynamics, while cyberstalking is more of a one-on-one experience. The bullying often occurs in public spaces, such as comment sections where anyone can jump in. Peers watch or join in the abuse more easily due to the internet's ability to hide the victim's emotional response. Participants can't see their cruelty's effect, allowing them to cross lines they normally wouldn't.
Cyberbullying is much more common among youths and teenagers, but the definition is broadening to be more applicable to adult dynamics as well.
Types of Cyberstalking
Although the cyberstalking definition indicates that any type of stalking is a negative interaction that happens over a long period of time, harassment can be broken into many types.
Infatuated cyberstalking involves trying to initiate an intimate relationship. In these cases, the stalker doesn’t have a pre-existing connection with the victim and takes any action to get noticed. Think of the stereotypical “obsessed fan” following musicians nationwide.
These stalkers focus on their target’s relationship status, likes, and dislikes to create an artificial bond. Their messages usually contain a sexual or explicit component. Interactions with an infatuated stalker can quickly escalate to offline stalking if they’re denied the type of relationship they want.
Like the infatuated type, relationship cyberstalkers aim to create an intimate connection. The difference is that relationship stalkers are already connected to their victims as ex-partners or friends.
Rather than abuse the object of their obsession, relationship cyberstalkers go after other people in their target’s life to remove competition. Typical targets for harassment include current romantic partners, close friends, and even family members.
Unlike the first two entries, hate cyberstalking is entirely vindictive. Criminals dig up as much harmful information as possible to permanently damage someone’s mental health, reputation, or physical safety.
These events are the closest representation of cyberbullying and are usually forms of criminal harassment. Hate cyberstalkers use various online tools, from spam messaging to identity theft. Many victims of this form of stalking report that the events were sparked by a trivial disagreement or interaction that the attacker took too far.
Indirect cyberstalking is unique in that it starts with some degree of physical contact. The offender may damage the person’s device, hack into it, install ransomware, or monitor their activities from afar without the victim knowing it. Sometimes these indirect stalkers simply post misinformation or sensitive and personal details about the person to embarrass them or damage their reputation.
Currently, cyberstalking laws vary significantly from country to country and even within the United States. California was the first state to adopt legislation making cyberstalking a crime with severe punishment.
Other states that also have cyberstalking laws include:
- New York
Legislation on Cyberstalking
Even if there isn’t much legislation tailored to cyberstalking, most states have adjusted existing offline stalking laws to include standards against online harassment. These standards include sharing nonconsensual content, online surveillance, and hacking.
However, victims must prove substantial emotional distress, physical danger, or financial damages for cyberstalking to escalate into a criminal offense. The issue is that the law hasn’t drawn a clear line on when online harassment goes too far.
Free speech discussions muddy the water, and many don’t know if their experiences constitute substantial emotional distress or risk.
The Damage of Cyberstalking
Some erroneously believe that cyberstalking isn’t as harmful as offline stalking due to the lack of a physical component. However, victims of cyberstalking experience similar levels of fear, anxiety, and other forms of distress. Victims live with the constant threat of attack and never know what their stalker will do next.
Cyberstalking is stressful and may lead to depression, suicide, anxiety, loss of sleep, trouble eating, difficulty concentrating, along with other mental health issues and physical symptoms. Often the perpetrators are someone you know, like an ex or even a family member or friend which only adds to the feelings of disappointment and fear.
Studies show that ignorance tactics such as repeated blocking and ignoring messages can diminish a cyberstalker’s actions. The problem is that this tact requires too much time, and the victim will face substantial damage in the process.
How to Spot Cyberstalking
Cyberstalkers may use a variety of techniques to harass and humiliate their victims. Some cyberstalking signs to watch out for include:
- Someone who makes excessive comments on your social media posts.
- A person sends you threatening or sexually explicit texts, emails, photos, or other harmful types of content.
- Someone is impersonating you on social media and making embarrassing comments.
- Tagging you in posts without your consent.
- Account takeover where the cyberstalker uses your accounts to post offensive or embarrassing content.
- Receiving a barrage of messages from an attacker.
Cyberstalkers often research their target extensively before waging an attack. Therefore, it’s essential to know how to protect yourself against this heinous crime.
How to Prevent Cyberstalking
Cyberstalking is a serious crime and can be very stressful and damaging to the victim. It’s important to learn how to stop cyberstalking or prevent it from happening in the first place. The best way to do this is to protect all your information online. Other ways to avoid cyberstalking include:
- Keep a low-profile online. Try to stay as anonymous as possible and safeguard your private information vehemently.
- Try to use nicknames or gender-neutral names so you won’t become an easy target looking for specific types.
- Do not post your email address, phone number, or home address anywhere publicly online. Be careful about posting work details also.
- Use a temporary email address to link to all your social media accounts and a private one to communicate with close friends and family. That way, if you need to delete the temporary account, you won’t have to start over with close connections.
- Turn on spam-filtering on all your email accounts.
- Keep all your software and hardware updated with the latest security patches.
- Use a password manager to keep track of all your account passwords and make them long and strong.
- Clean up your profiles on social media and remove any personal details.
- Turn on two-factor authentication with all your online accounts.
- Use biometrics and PINs for all your devices to protect them.
- Use a VPN (a virtual private network) to mask your IP and online activities.
- Configure all your social media privacy settings to maximum.
- Do not use a free or public Wi-Fi connection without a VPN.
- Send private information via text only to trusted connections, do not post it on forums or online in social media.
- Never leave mobile devices unattended.
- Turn off geolocation (GPS) when not in use so you cannot be tracked. This is especially important when you upload images to social media.
- Install antivirus/anti-malware software on all your computers and devices.
- Log out of accounts rather than just shutting the browser page.
- Never install or download anything from an untrusted source.
- Change all your passwords for online accounts.
- Limit social media sharing to just friends and unfriend anyone you don’t know.
What to Do if You Are Being Cyberstalked
If you think someone is cyberstalking you, you should take quick action to put an end to it.
- Use Google’s reverse image search to see if their picture on social media is fake.
- Report the offender to social media platforms or their ISP if you know who they use.
- Block the person on all platforms and report their behavior to federal authorities. It’s important to note that each social media channel has a way to file a report for unacceptable behavior.
- Contact local law enforcement if you have been threatened or feel unsafe.
Unfortunately, knowing when to involve your local law enforcement is challenging. It’s common for victims to feel like they’re being “paranoid” or that the stalker’s actions aren’t that bad since contacting the police seems like an extreme step.
A police report can trigger a criminal investigation with enough cause. If you’re worried that the police will take things too far, you can always visit your local courthouse for a restraining order. This process takes some time as a judge must review your application, but it can be expedited if you provide evidence of danger.
Although it won’t stop the harasser from collecting information on you, it may prevent them from interacting with you online, depending on your state. Before going to law enforcement, you’ll want the proper proof on hand.
Take screenshots of the stalker’s direct interactions with you. Good examples are mass “likes” they leave on your online content or inappropriate messages in your inbox. Blow the images up and print them for physical evidence. The more evidence you have, the stronger your case is likely to be.