Cyberstalking: Why and How
If you already are being cyberstalked and need help breaking free, skip to helplinks.
It's good to practice online safety no matter which site you're on, but it's absolutely crucial on abuse support sites. Everywhere else you either stick to neutral subjects and don't mention sensitive personal information (e.g. gaming forums), or your sensitive information isn't displayed to others (e.g. online banking). On abuse sites you talk of very personal and sensitive things in a group accessible to anyone who feels like registering an account. On a well-moderated site with a fine-tuned registration protocol the chances of getting cyberstalked aren't very high, but when it does happen - the consequences can be devastating, due to the nature of topics discussed. Please don't gamble with your safety, even if stalking is unheard of on a site you go to. This page talks of what stalking is, why anyone might target you, and how they find you practically. The next two pages in this series contain suggestions on how to stay safe and the top five scams on abuse sites.
Cyberstalking means using the internet to stalk or harass you: monitoring your online activities, gathering information about you, threats, blackmail, intimidation, bullying, soliciting your for sex, false accusations, defamation, slander, libel, vandalism, or identity theft. A cyberstalker could empty out your bank accounts, harass your family, friends, and workplace (on average a stalker contacts 21 people you know), use your photo and name to create a fake Facebook account (or take over the real one) so that people will think badly of you, follow you from site to site, spread gossip/lies about you everywhere, enlist others to stalk you too, harass you via skype, email, phone, or mail, show up at your doorstep, or even attempt to assault or kill you. Cyberstalking is a criminal offense in most jurisdictions, and may result in a restraining order, probation, or jail. Stalking can happen to anyone, just like robbery or rape, and is not the victim's fault. However, like with any crime, understanding the risks helps to minimize them and protect yourself.
Why would anyone cyberstalk me?
A cyberstalker can be someone you know or a total stranger. The first group consists of those who have a grudge against (or an obsession with) you, and can include people like an ex that you had a nasty breakup with, a waitress you didn't tip, or a creepy neighbor who interprets your "hello" as the promise of a romantic relationship. The second group can include a wide range of online predators who aren't after you personally, but something about you makes you seem like an easy target to them.
Let's say you go to an online dating site, and mention there that you have a jealous husband. That makes you an easy target for blackmail: send me your nude pics or else I'll tell your husband about your online dating activities. Once you send the pics, they will be used as well: if you don't want the pics forwarded to your husband, meet me for sex. And so on.
Let's say you posted on psychcentral.com that you hate your mom and generally those with BPD because they are attention-seeking manipulators. All seemed fine, but five years down the road someone with BPD has read the post and got angry enough to google your nickname. If you used the same nickname to register on other support sites, they can make your life miserable: follow you from site to site, copy your posts, create blogs dedicated entirely to bashing you, listing your full name and address plus all the nicks you use online, comparing what you post under each of them.
Let's say you're in the middle of a custody battle with your ex who has access to your computer, and suddenly you meet this wonderful new friend on a site you regularly go to, who listens to you unconditionally and is especially interested in your psychiatric history - hospitalizations, medications, diagnoses. Naturally, at the custody hearing your ex brings up your extensive mental health issues, claiming that you're too ill to care for your child..
How can they possibly find me?
They collect information you share about yourself online. If you share nothing - they can't harm you. How much you share is obviously within your control, so here are a few examples of very basic googling strategies that a stalker might use:
Let's say you shared your email address. The first thing a stalker does is look it up on Facebook (if that doesn't work, they can try a site like spokeo.com). If there's a match - they know your name, the town you live in, and your approximate age. They look up this information on whitepages.com, and have your name, address, phone number, and the names and numbers of your relatives.
Let's say you shared your age, first name (say, Mary), and a photo of yourself wearing a sweatshirt with your high school sports team mascot. A stalker can look up your school's yearbooks and see all the Marys in the year or two you should have been there. Some of them can be eliminated at the spot (died, moved abroad, wrong race, etc). The remaining 3-5 Marys the stalker would look up on whitepages.com and have full names and addresses of. If you now share the color of your house - they can use google streetview to see the houses of their 3-5 Marys, to narrow the list down to you.
Let's say a stalker already knows that you're a single white female, and now you’ve shared that you live in Sampleville, ZX, and work as a vet technician. They can look up all the vet clinics in Sampleville, each will have a list of employees. If Sampleville isn't huge, they'll end up with 10-20 vet technicians total - how many of them are simultaneously female, white, and single is a matter of chance. If there's more than one - a stalker will wait for another bit of identifying info that you share, and proceed like the example above.
If you feel stalked online:
It absolutely doesn't matter if the person is a stalker or not, if you did anything to provoke it or not, or if you really are being stalked or it's all in your head. The only thing that matters is that you aren't enjoying what's happening and want it to stop. Here's what you do:
- Give a firm and clear "no". You can do it at any time, even if you said "yes" earlier. Things like "brb", "sorry, I have to go, talk to you later", "sorry, im busy right now", changing subject, or not responding at all are hints, not boundaries. You need to literally tell the person "do not contact me again", to avoid any misunderstandings.
- Don't engage in any further interactions for any reason. That just gives a mixed message - on one hand you don't want to be contacted, but on the other hand you keep responding. Don't repeat, explain, or justify yourself, and don't argue, no matter what they tell you.
- If they don't leave you alone - keep copies of all incoming correspondence (emails, text messages, letters, phone calls), and contact authorities if you feel threatened.
- If this is happening on a moderated site - put the person on ignore and contact mods. If the person doesn't leave you alone when told to - they should be banned for harassment. Besides, chances are that you aren't the only victim, so speaking up could help protect other members of the community.
- womensaid.org.uk - great suggestions for keeping your computer activity secret from an abuser who may share your computer.
- WHO@ (Working to Halt Online Abuse): A collection of resources, articles and information.
- WiredSafety.org - information and volunteers who can help if you are being stalked.
- cyberangels.org - one of the oldest online safety education program; instructions on what to do practically, at lot of focus on software.
- Knights of Kindness - site by Steven W. Nunnally (aka BaddTeddy); hasn't been updated since 2009, but still has good info.
~ Mahatma Gandhi
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