The Internet creates many opportunities for businesses and individuals alike, but it has also given rise to new forms of abuse. One example is cyberstalking, a serious crime that can have devastating effects on victims.
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Ways to Protect Yourself Against Cyberstalking
The Internet and social media can be dangerous – a dangerous double-edged sword. On the plus side, they allow everyone to raise their voice – especially powerful for minority groups. But, their liberal and open nature makes cyber harassment very easy to spread and difficult to manage.
To avoid this, follow some basic guidelines to protect yourself against cyberstalking. Take charge of your public profile and ensure you don’t become a victim.
1. Don't Respond to Your Stalker
Cyberstalking often escalates into something more sinister and threatening, even if they initially seem friendly. The best way to deal with cyberstalkers is not to feed their attention-seeking behavior by responding to them. Responding may encourage them to continue their unwanted pursuit.
Keep track of all communications from your stalker. Write down details like messages times and dates, content, and the means of transmission (e.g., SMS, social media, etc.). Note other relevant information about your stalker's identity or behavior. If you decide to report the stalking or get a restraining order, you may need this information.
2. Avoid Communicating with Strangers
Being wary of strangers is true both online and offline for almost everyone, especially if you're being harassed by someone online already. Be careful and think twice before accepting friend requests on social media from people you don't know in real life. Make sure you review social media privacy settings so that only friends can see your posts and photos.
3. Don’t Overshare
It’s sometimes easy to forget that almost anyone can access the information you share. That’s especially true if you’ve been lax about privacy settings. Nevertheless, avoid sharing personal data like your address or phone number publicly.
4. Use a Gender-neutral Screen Name or Pseudonym
Online harassment is often gendered, so this can help prevent some kinds of harassment. Another benefit of using a gender-neutral screen name is that it gives you more freedom to express yourself without worrying about how people may react if they know your real identity.
5. Disable Geolocation Settings on Your Devices
Geolocation settings on smartphones and tablets allow apps to access information about your location and share it with others. Go into the settings section on your smartphone or tablet to disable geolocation and protect yourself from cyberstalking.
Be especially wary about geolocation settings since they can also appear in various applications. For example, some social media apps will ask for permission to access your location and may share this information in unexpected ways.
6. Use a VPN when on public WiFi
You can achieve some measure of digital anonymity by using a VPN. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, allows you to create an encrypted connection to any network over the internet. A VPN lets you connect to a network without other users on the same network to see what sites you’re visiting.
Using a VPN can be especially effective when facing a tech-savvy cyberstalker. These individuals are often knowledgeable in the use of basic hacking tools. A VPN can easily protect you against such low-grade devices.
7. Secure Your Digital Devices
Install a security system on your computer, laptop, and mobile devices. A good mic typically includes firewalls and anti-virus software. It’s also important to keep these defenses up to date. Ensure you have the latest security updates for your software—especially web browsers, plug-ins, and operating systems.
8. Use Strong Passwords Everywhere
Cyberstalkers sometimes attempt to harass victims by taking over their digital accounts. Because of that, it is essential to use strong passwords. Avoid using the same password for multiple sites or accounts. Consider using a password manager that uses encryption to protect your passwords.
What is Cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking uses the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass any individual, group, or organization. It may include false accusations, defamation, slander, and libel. It may also include monitoring, identity theft, threats, vandalism, solicitation for sex, or gathering of potentially harmful information.
Most cyberstalkers try to remain anonymous while sending their victims threatening or obscene messages over email or social media. They sometimes trace their victim’s IP address to gather more information about them to harass them offline as well.
While cyberstalking is sometimes used interchangeably with online harassment or cyberbullying, it isn't the same. You can generally distinguish the difference by intent. A cyberstalker intends to cause fear. In contrast, a bully wants to cause harm at that moment in time.
Another distinction is that cyberstalking does not require repeated behavior. The victim may experience a single incident of cyberharassment that causes harm; for example, harm done to your public reputation by releasing private information onto the internet.
Potential Effect of Cyberstalking on Victims
Like victims of other forms of stalking, cyberstalking victims can experience a range of physical, emotional, and psychological effects. The impact severity dramatically depends on how long the cyberstalking continues and how much control the victim feels they have over the situation.
Symptoms may include:
- Anxiety, panic, poor sleep quality
- Depression, anger, feelings of helplessness
- Increased distrust towards others
- Inability to focus or concentration
- Physical illnesses such as headaches
These issues also vary based on whether your cyberstalker is someone you know, such as an ex-partner. Cyberstalking by a stranger may not be as traumatic as being targeted by someone you're close to because it's more likely to come with feelings of betrayal rather than fear for your safety.
How to Report Cyberstalking
Important Note: Report your stalker to the police if they make threats against you or your family members or make personal contact with you in person or by phone. Local law enforcement can help protect you and help identify your stalker.
Cyberstalking is sometimes misunderstood and, because of that, often goes unreported. It is crucial to understand cyberstalking is a criminal offense in many jurisdictions. Some potential avenues for the address of cyberstalking include:
Your Local Police Department
They may advise you further or direct you towards a cybersecurity agency the offense falls under within your area. You may also consider a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) for those within the US. The IC3 is an online reporting center designed to receive complaints against internet crimes such as cyberstalking.
The Stalker’s Service Provider
Since email is an often-used medium of cyberstalking, you can report such activities to the service provider. For example, if your cyberstalker uses Gmail, you can send a report to Google.
A Digital Anti-cyberstalking NGO
Several websites collect information on cyberstalking and attempt to provide aid to victims. One example is Fighting Cyberstalking, which provides an impressive amount of resources that can assist.
Be Aware of Other Forms of Digital Abuse
Many see cyberstalking as one of the most invasive and traumatic forms of online violence. However, it is not the only form of digital abuse. Violence comes in different shapes in cyberspace, bringing diverse and personalized risks:
Trolls harass and intimidate victims through hateful comments. Even some governments worldwide are known to finance keyboard armies for spreading propaganda and interfering in political decision-making.
Online sexual harassment
Sexual predators operate across dating apps, forums, and social media platforms to harass victims with abusive comments and intimate pictures. This harassment can generally escalate into something more serious, like cyberstalking.
Hackers infiltrate victims' devices to collect personal data and publish those online. The goal is to undermine the targets' sense of security, causing panic or self-censorship.
This criminal activity is an example of when online abuses become real also offline. Criminals spread false reports to trick emergency services into sending authorities to a person’s address.
Final Thoughts on Protection Against Cyberstalking
Like many crimes, it is easy for the public to blame the victim. However, this is often wrong, as the more intelligent among us know. It’s also important not to overreact since digital expression can sometimes be harder to interpret.
It’s your responsibility to stay safe online. If you feel a threat make sure you document details closely and confer with friends and family. Next, check with law enforcement to see if a crime is indeed in progress. If so, your documented evidence will come in handy.
Don’t let online abusers get away with things too quickly. Putting the authorities on their tails will occupy them and ensure they think twice before attempting such activities again.