Online stalking, commonly referred to as cyberstalking or online harassment, is a relatively new phenomenon that has mostly developed as a result of the internet age. As with offline stalking, it has the potential to have a disastrous effect on victims. Numerous developments have helped in the simplicity with which cyberstalking may be perpetrated. These include the ease with which we can obtain huge quantities of personal information (through social media, for example) and the range of methods through which we may interact (through various platforms and apps).
While the psychological characteristics of online stalkers resemble those of real stalkers pretty closely, there are a few distinctions. Cyberstalkers are more likely to be their victims’ ex-partners and are less likely to approach them. However, the majority of online stalkers use some offline measures as well.
Cyberstalking may cause victims significant mental (and even bodily) pain. Additionally, it might be difficult to establish, particularly if the culprit is skilled at concealment. In this essay, we’ll cover internet stalking in further detail, including some real-world instances, as well as the rules governing cyberstalking. Additionally, we provide several pieces of advice to assist you in protecting yourself from cyberstalkers and outline what to do if you become a victim of this crime.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking, or online stalking, is a broad term that refers to the act of victimizing people via the use of internet technologies. Cyberstalkers may harass, intimidate, or threaten victims through several techniques, including social media, email, and instant messaging.
Typically, cyberstalking entails communication between the stalker and the victim. However, there may be no effort to contact you in rare instances. For instance, a cybercriminal may create a fictitious social media account in the victim’s name with the intent of shaming the victim.
To show how online stalking occurs in the real world, consider the following instances of cyberstalking, which include several cases that have been prosecuted:
Loren Okamura was charged in Utah with torturing Walt Gilmore and his adult daughter online for more than a year. He sent her threatening texts and published her address online. Additionally, he summoned over 500 people to their residences for undesirable services such as tow trucks, food delivery, and prostitutes. Okamura was charged with cyberstalking and making interstate threats, as well as transporting people for prostitution, in October 2019.
Alec Eiland, 20, was sentenced to two years in federal prison for cyberstalking on December 5, 2019, in Nebraska. Eiland threatened, harassed, and stalked two women who had rejected him romantically on social media. He requested nudity images and threatened rape and other acts of violence, among other things. He placed the contact details of one lady online with an offer to seek sex.
Jessica Nordquist, a cyberstalker who faked her abduction, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison by a London court in December 2018. An American citizen waged a protracted cyberstalking campaign against her ex-boyfriend. She bombarded him with messages and emails and set up over a dozen Instagram identities just to bother him.
She also provided him with texts and photographs in support of the allegations that she had been abducted and abused as part of the campaign. Stalking involving substantial alarm, distress, hostile communications, and perverting the course of justice were among the allegations leveled against her.
Relatives of Parkland victims
As if the families of the Parkland school shooting victims weren’t already going through enough, several were cyberstalked by Brandon Fleury, a 22-year-old California resident. He admits to sending threatening communications to family members of several of the victims of the Parkland, Florida, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. He established many bogus Instagram profiles in late 2018 and early 2019 to insult victims’ families. Fleury was sentenced to five years in jail in March 2020.
Rejection from law school
Cyberstalking occurrences often involve dissatisfied potential suitors or ex-partners. However, an attorney in Delaware was exploited by a rejected interviewee. Ho Ka Terence Yung attacked the victim, who worked as an alumni interviewer at a law school where Yung was rejected. For 18 months, the victim and his family were exposed to harassment.
Yung also accused the victim of racist, aggressive, and cruel postings, as well as sexual assault and child abuse. He even arranged for prostitutes and guys seeking casual sex to visit the victim’s house. In February 2019, Yung was sentenced to 46 months in prison.
Home cameras that have been hacked
Recent cyberstalking attacks have targeted home surveillance systems. Cybercriminals torment victims in these instances by exploiting the very tools that are supposed to keep them safe. One particularly frightening instance was a guy hacking a Mississippi family’s Ring camera and initiating contact with an eight-year-old child.
As seen by the preceding cases, anybody may become a victim of cyberstalking for any reason (or no reason at all). Victims may be picked up at random, or cyberstalking may be used for retribution after a quarrel, breakup, or rejection. Businesses might become the subject of cyberstalking by rivals or individuals who object to their business activities.
Online stalkers may be quite adept at concealing their traces by using bogus social media identities and monitoring-evading programs. Indeed, many cyberstalkers extend their assaults due to their mistaken belief that they are undetectable online. While there are several techniques available to assist them in remaining anonymous, law enforcement may often track them down.
Legislation prohibiting cyberstalking
Cyberstalking is a relatively new crime that is evolving in lockstep with the advancement of technology. So, how does cyberstalking fit within the legal framework? The answer to that question is country-specific.
Cyberstalking is a criminal violation in the United States. It is, however, not expressly protected by federal legislation. Rather, cyberstalking instances may be prosecuted under harassment, defamation, and stalking statutes, as well as the Violence Against Women Act. However, since these rules were not created with cyberstalking in mind, they lack the requisite reach in certain instances. In other instances, the laws are ambiguous, which means that the victim may not be fully protected.
Over a dozen states have implemented anti-cyberstalking legislation. In 1999, California became the first state to do so, enacting a new electronic stalking statute under Penal Code 646.9 PC. New York, New Hampshire, Illinois, Hawaii, Connecticut, Arizona, Alabama, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Florida, Alaska, Texas, and Missouri are among the states that have prohibited harassment or stalking through electronic devices.
Canada’s Department of Justice defines cyberstalking as a form of criminal harassment under the country’s criminal harassment statute. The handbook’s Section 1.6 opens with the following:
Criminal harassment may be carried out via the use of a computer system, such as the Internet. The crime’s components remain the same; the offense is committed using technical instruments.
It goes on to list examples of acts that may constitute cyberstalking, such as sending harassing messages, gathering information about the victim (including through the use of spyware), engaging in “cyber-smearing” (attempts to harm the victim’s reputation), tracking a victim using GPS technology, and sending malware to the victim’s computer, among others.
While a criminal harassment violation has a maximum sentence of ten years, it is worth noting that it may be tried with other relevant charges such as voyeurism, defamation, extortion, intimidation, and identity fraud.
The original 1997 Protection from Harassment Act in the United Kingdom included harassment but did not specifically address stalking. The 2012 Protection of Freedoms Act updated the previous statute and added a new provision (2A. Offense of stalking).
While this article does not particularly address cyberstalking, it does include instances of stalker behavior that might readily apply to online stalking. These include contacting a person through any means, monitoring someone’s internet or electronic communication usage, and posting anything that may be related to or pretend to come from another person.
Cyberstalking is covered under Australia’s Stalking Amendment Act (1999). It does not specifically specify internet stalking or cyberstalking, but it does involve contacting someone with any technology. When further conditions are met, this might be considered stalking.
There has been disagreement about some cyberstalking legislation since there are instances when the boundary between cyberstalking and free expression is razor-thin. These situations, however, are more often those involving prominent personalities such as politicians.
How to put an end to internet stalking
As you may have learned from others’ or possibly your own experience, internet stalking is a serious subject. Fortunately, there are several things you may need to do to help prevent or lessen online stalking. Of course, this does not mean that such behavior is encouraged. Rather, these recommendations will assist you in securing your digital privacy, restricting a malevolent party’s potential to uncover information about you and gain access to your online accounts.
1. Avoid disclosing private information online
In the era of social media, it’s all too easy to publish information about yourself, even if you’re unsure. Shares rapidly devolved into oversharing, and social media made it cheap for criminals (including stalkers) to monitor and harass their victims.
Posting details about your house and family, your place of employment, or your favorite hangout spot might be risky. It’s also a poor idea to share your email address or phone number online.
It’s worth noting that even if you’ve ceased sharing personal information, previous fragments may remain publicly accessible, for example, in forgotten accounts or profiles. If you’re uncertain, it’s worth doing an internet search for your name (and any other names you’ve used) to see what information is available.
While a basic Google search may reveal all readily available information, a stalker may be digging further. OSINT (Open-Source Intelligence) is a term that refers to intelligence that is derived from publicly accessible sources, such as social media platforms, public documents, and chat rooms.
It may be utilized constructively, such as enhancing your digital privacy or assisting in the location of missing individuals, or maliciously.
With little knowledge, you may use the OSINT framework to determine what information about you is publicly accessible online and then take the required actions to delete it.
2. Inform your friends if you believe you are being tracked
Cyberstalkers often contact their victims’ friends and family members to get personal information or to ascertain their locations. They may even act as their victim to get details about their connection with another individual or to distribute hate messages on their behalf.
As such, if you believe you are being followed, it is preferable if your companions are alert to anything out of the norm so that the stalker may be apprehended before more harm is done.
3. Remove yourself from websites that allow individuals to look for people
One of the first steps in removing your personal information from the internet is to contact people search directories and request that they erase your information. Are you aware that internet directories such as BeenVerified, Intelius, and Spokeo steal information from social networking sites? These are mostly for marketers’ purposes, but they might readily be utilized by internet stalkers.
To deactivate your profile on these sites, the majority of them will need you to complete an opt-out form. Others make it more complicated by requiring you to subscribe to the service or send a request with copies of your identity. With over a dozen similar sites available, this may be a time-consuming job. If you’d like someone else to handle it for you, you may pay for a service such as DeleteMe to opt you out of about 20 databases.
4. Avoid posting details about your physical location
Similarly, publishing or disclosing your location is not a smart idea. Online abuse may swiftly escalate into stalking in the street. By “checking in” to a place on Facebook or permitting location sharing on other applications, you may expose yourself to actual risk.
Geotagging photographs is also a problem, and many people are unaware of it. Cellphone cameras often have built-in location monitoring, which means that when you share a picture on social media, the location of the image may also be revealed. This feature should be off in your device’s settings. For example, iOS users may choose “Never” under Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Camera.
Additionally, urge your pals to refrain from sharing information about your whereabouts, such as by tagging images you’re in or posting that they’re out and about with you.
5. Do not accept friend requests from strangers
If you have a Facebook page, you’re probably used to getting friend requests. While you can adjust your privacy settings to control what each person sees, it’s significantly easier to restrict your friend list to those with whom you’re comfortable sharing all of your posts.
Numerous individuals establish fictitious identities on Facebook for a variety of reasons, but most often for harassment. While Facebook does have some kind of verification, it is far from effective. Someone may easily establish a profile with the express goal of stalking you.
If you’re experiencing problems with someone, immediately block them. You may prevent individual profiles from following or contacting you on other networks such as Twitter and Instagram.
6. Utilize secure passwords
This piece of advice is repeated often, yet it remains critical. Certain internet stalkers will try to hack into the accounts of their victims. They’ll then exploit them for a variety of purposes, including publishing pornographic material or hate speech purportedly from the victim.
If you use the same password for many accounts, it takes just one data breach for hackers to get access to various social networks, email platforms, and other accounts.
Additionally, if someone obtains your email password and that email is associated with another account, that email may be used to alter the password for other accounts. This is because the majority of password reset methods operate by emailing you a reset link.
Numerous instances of cyberstalking include a previous or current spouse or partner who may have account credentials. If there is any possibility that an ex-partner would harass you online, it is a good idea to change your passwords immediately and use unique passwords for each account.
If you struggle to remember passwords, a password manager such as NordPass may help you.
7. Enable two-factor authentication (two-factor authentication) (or two-step verification)
While these are two distinct processes, the phrases 2FA and 2SV are sometimes used synonymously. Enabling two-factor authentication requires two steps to access or, in certain situations, modify an account. The first step typically requires a password, while the second may require confirmation through email or text, or via the use of a biometric identification method such as a fingerprint or facial scan.
This only offers an additional degree of security to your accounts. However, as previously said, if someone gains access to your email account or, for that matter, your phone, they may be able to circumvent these measures.
8. Adjust your social media privacy settings
You may alter the privacy settings on social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. For instance, Facebook gives you the ability to choose who may see your profile, posts, friend lists, and friend requests.
It’s worth noting that these options are often configured to provide the least amount of privacy possible by default. Additionally, these characteristics are subject to change over time. As such, it’s worthwhile to check your privacy settings regularly to ensure they haven’t changed and that you’re still getting the maximum level of privacy.
9. Acquire the ability to identify suspicious emails and texts
Cyberstalkers may use specific strategies, such as sending infected emails and SMS messages, that may not initially seem harmful. For instance, a spear-phishing email may seem to come from a trustworthy sender while really phishing for information such as social network account login credentials.
In other circumstances, malicious emails may include links or attachments that direct the victim’s computer to download malware. This is a frequently used technique for installing spyware on a user’s device and may result in webcam hacking and keyboard recording (for discovering passwords).
Be suspicious of emails that solicit personal information from you. Verify that these are actual emails from the supposed sender by inspecting the email address. Avoid clicking on links and attachments unless you are positive that the sender is trustworthy.
To quickly return to the topic of webcam hacking, this is a legitimate concern that affects people worldwide. While antivirus software should detect malware that is manipulating your camera, you may wish to tape it shut or keep your laptop closed while not in use.
10. Identify and eliminate spy applications
As a follow-up to the latest advice, you may be worried that a surveillance app has been installed on your smartphone. For instance, a boyfriend or ex-partner who has physical access to your smartphone may install an app that monitors your position and conversations. Alternatively, you may have unwittingly downloaded spyware as a result of a malicious email or text message. In a separate piece, we outline how to identify and remove malware.
11. Utilize anti-virus software
If a stalker attempts to put malware on your device, excellent antivirus software is one of your first lines of protection. This will identify and stop a large number of harmful apps before they get access to your device. Additionally, it may identify malware that is already installed on your machine, allowing you to remove it.
It’s worth noting that you may install antivirus software on mobile devices as well. It’s worth mentioning, though, that someone with access to your smartphone may have installed a genuine program with the intent of spying on or following you that antivirus software would miss. As such, it’s a good idea to frequently evaluate your app installations and settings.
12. Always use a VPN, much more so while using public WiFi
Regarding internet security and privacy, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a must-have. It encrypts all internet communication between your device and the internet. This implies that any snoopers who intercept it will be unable to read it. This is advantageous for a multitude of reasons, including preventing your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or government from monitoring your activity.
Additionally, it stops anybody using your WiFi network from accessing your information. For instance, if you use an unprotected public wifi network, such as that found in a coffee shop, mall, or college campus, you run the danger of a hacker lurking on the same network, waiting to steal your information.
A VPN is especially handy if you share a home network and your information is at risk of being exposed to other household members. Given the prevalence of cyberstalking among ex-partners, it’s not implausible that someone might wait outside your house, connect to your wifi network, and monitor your behavior. Apart from safeguarding your network (more on that later), you may protect yourself in this case by using a VPN.
13. Maintain a log of any cyberstalking behavior and report it
We’ll discuss this more below, but it’s critical to document any behavior that makes you feel uneasy, even if you don’t believe it to be cyberstalking at the time. These circumstances may rapidly deteriorate, which is why it is preferable to have a complete record of all behavior when the time comes to report it.
Suggestions for outwitting cyber stalkers
The aforementioned recommendations are quite simple to execute, requiring little expenditure and little technical know-how. However, if you wish to better safeguard your online identity, the following are some more sophisticated methods to consider:
- Utilize secure email
- Utilize the Tor web browser
- Secure your router and Internet of Things devices
Consider the following in further detail:
1. Utilize secure email
While many messaging services provide encryption by default or as an extra feature, the majority of prominent email service providers do not include encryption options. This implies that anybody who intercepts emails, including cyberstalkers, may read them completely.
Encrypting emails is not straightforward for non-technical users, however, we do give email encryption instructions if you’re interested.
The alternative option is to use a specific encrypted email service such as Hushmail or Tutanota, however, these services are not free.
2. Utilize the Tor web browser
Another method of preserving your online privacy is to utilize the Tor browser. It encrypts all of your internet data and routes it across a network of nodes (volunteer computers), making it very difficult to trace you online.
The primary disadvantage of the Tor browser is that encryption significantly slows down your internet connection, making it unsuitable for continuous usage. Additionally, its usage is often connected with illicit conduct, which deters some consumers.
3. Secure your router and Internet of Things devices
If you share a network with another person, they may be able to intercept and observe or manipulate your traffic. Many consumers fail to reset their router’s password, leaving them open to snoopers. It’s critical to take basic precautions to protect your home router, such as changing the default password and keeping up with firmware updates (you can usually set these to install automatically).
Additionally, you may safeguard your router by setting the maximum degree of encryption (WPA2), restricting outgoing and incoming traffic, and disabling WPS. These and other methods are detailed in our guide to safeguarding your wireless router. Notably, if you have any doubts about who has access to your network, you should utilize a VPN, even if you are at home.
Devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), such as home assistants and security systems, may also offer threats. They may be transmitting or receiving data that may be utilized to ascertain details about your daily life or location. Additionally, as previously indicated, in-home cameras may have been hacked, enabling criminals to spy on and interact with you and your family members.
Installing updates is one of the most critical things you can do to secure this and all other devices. Typically, they include security fixes that address known vulnerabilities. Additionally, you should change the default passwords and “wake words” (for home assistants) on these devices, and avoid storing any personal information on them.
How to submit a report on cyberstalking
Cyberstalking and online harassment are both considered kinds of stalking under a variety of international laws. If you believe you are a victim of cyberstalking, you should inform the local legal police. It’s a good idea to provide as much information as possible to help them assist you.
As previously said, if you ever feel uneasy in an online environment, keep track of any messages or circumstances that make you feel uneasy. You can keep track of occurrences using a basic spreadsheet, but photographic evidence of happenings is much more beneficial. Take screenshots of any stalker behavior that occurs as part of their campaign. It’s better to get started as soon as possible, even if something seems trivial. In this manner, if that is the case, you may demonstrate how the issue has deteriorated over time.
Given the possibility of doctored screenshots, it’s important to capture a photo of the message on the device using a different camera. If you’re tracking phone conversations or text messages, erase the contact’s name to make the phone number visible. This will assist in establishing who is calling if necessary. Additionally, keep or record any audio messages you receive, since they may expire automatically after a certain length of time.