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What is cyberstalking? How to help protect yourself against it

A woman who is a potential victim of cyberstalking looks at her phone while walking at night.

May 4, 2022

Cyberstalking is defined as the use of email, direct messaging or other electronic means to harass, scare or threaten someone with physical harm. Cyberstalking may take various forms, such as bullying, sexual harassment,  or other unwelcome attention around your life and activities.

Cyberstalking vs. cyberbullying: What's the difference?

The dictionary definition of cyberstalking makes a distinction between cyberstalking and cyberbullying based in  part on the age of the victim. The term cyberstalking is used more often when the victim is an  adult. And the term cyberbullying typically is used when the victim is a child, adolescent, or teen.

In some cases, the term cyberstalking may be used to indicate online activities and communications that cause a  victim to fear for their physical safety. And the term cyberbullying may be used to refer to communications that  may cause a victim emotional harm or distress. 

What is cyberstalking? Two examples

Learning the definition of cyberstalking is one thing, but specific examples may help you understand it even  better. Unfortunately, recent news coverage offers several incidents that reveal the disturbing and insidious nature  of this crime.

Cyberstalking example #1: eBay exec targets newsletter publishers

A former eBay executive pleaded guilty to a number of crimes related to harassing a Massachusetts couple to try  to get them to stop publishing a newsletter related to eBay sales. The cyberstalking campaign included public  tweets, threatening direct messages on Twitter, and going to the couple's home to put a GPS tracker on their car.

The cyberstalkers also sent disturbing items to the victims' address, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.  These deliveries included a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the death of a spouse, and a bloody pig mask.

Cyberstalking example #2: Man cyberstalks woman after date refusal

After a "love interest" turned him down for a romantic relationship, a Texas man used more than 100 social media  accounts to cyberstalk her, sending threatening messages to her and to another victim he "saw as a romantic rival," according to the DOJ.

The cyberstalking campaign — lasting over six months — included using social media accounts to send death  threats to the victim as well as publishing her name, address, and other private information online, which is known as "doxing." He also messaged her creepy and threatening photos, including one in which he superimposed her  mother's face on a photo of a woman standing by a grave.

What do cyberstalkers do?

The common denominator in cyberstalking is technology. By definition, cyberstalkers use electronic communication, social media, and other technology to commit their crimes.

Each cyberstalking case is different, but a look at recent cases reveals that cyberstalkers commonly engage in  identity theft and other criminal behaviors. Many cyberstalkers use a blend of online and physical harassment and  intimidation. Here are some common cyberstalking behaviors:

  • Blackmailing a victim using personal information or photos.
  • Making false accusations about a victim online.
  • Publicly posting derogatory statements about a victim.
  • Posing as a victim online to cause harm to their life or career.
  • Tracking someone’s online activity or physical location.
  • Making death threats or other overt threats of violence.
  • Sending threatening doctored photos of the victim or their family.
  • "Doxing" a victim by publishing their private information online.
  • Destroying or manipulating data by sending a virus to a victim’s devices.

Some cyberstalkers use technology to get information such as a physical address and then mail threatening  physical items to a victim or even show up at their home.

Is it cyberstalking to "stalk" someone on social media?

Do you frequently check your love interest's tweets, pine over your ex's perfect engagement photos on Instagram,  or hover around LinkedIn to find out if your former office rival is still unemployed?

Many people use the phrase “stalking” to describe following someone’s activities via their social networks. That’s  different, and usually doesn’t involve harassment or criminal activity. In contrast, cyberstalking can be a serious  crime with legal implications that may even result in prison time.

Cyberstalking: How to help protect yourself

Cyberstalking is a serious crime, and no one wants to become a victim. One way to help protect yourself is to keep your personal information private on the internet. That’s a start, but there’s a lot more to know about how  cyberstalking works and how to keep yourself safe from cyber stalkers.

Shield yourself and your family from cyberstalkers by following these important tips:

  • Control who has access to your computer, smartphone, tablet and other devices. Cyberstalkers who get their hands on a device can quickly and easily install software or hardware, sometimes known as  "stalkerware" to monitor a victim's every online move or track their physical location.
  • Make sure to protect your computer, tablet and phone with a strong password, and encourage your family members to do the same with their devices. Safeguard your accounts with good password management and security. Consider using a password manager to make it easy to keep track of  all your strong passwords securely.
  • Watch out for online strangers who might get friendly and then tempt you to let your guard down. Never  share your full name, address, phone number, full date of birth, email address, or the city where you live to  someone you don’t know personally.
  • Do an online search for your own name and those of your spouse and kids to see what information is  available about you online. If you find personal information that you wouldn't want a cyberstalker to get,  you may need to contact the website to ask that the data be removed.
  • Be careful about publicly sharing information that would let a cyberstalker know your physical whereabouts, such as "checking in" at a place on social media or publicly announcing that you plan to attend a certain event.
  • Use privacy settings on social media and other online accounts to limit what you share to close friends, relatives and others in your trusted circle. Consider using privacy settings to prevent your profile  from showing up in search results when others look online for your name.
  • As always, use good, updated security software to prevent someone from getting spyware onto your  computer via a phishing attack or an infected web page. Check the app store for your mobile devices to see what security software is available. Or visit the Norton Mobile page to see what programs are available for  your device's platform. Security software could allow you to detect spyware on your device and decrease  your chances of being stalked.

How to report cyberstalking

If you encounter someone who's engaging in cyberstalking behaviors and it seems serious, or if you begin to  receive threats, you should report it to the police. Keep in mind many police departments have cybercrime units,  and cyberstalking is a crime.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also runs the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). In addition to  contacting your local police, you can file a complaint online to report cyberstalking and other cybercrimes to the FBI.

If you’re being cyberstalked, remember to keep copies of any messages or images that would serve as proof of the  harassment. Take screenshots and keep a log of the dates and times you receive messages.

If you suspect that someone is using spyware software to track your everyday activities, and you believe you may  be in danger, only use public computers or telephones to seek help. Otherwise, your efforts to get help will be  known to your cyberstalker and this may leave you in even greater danger.

It's important to report cyberstalking, and get help right away, to keep you and your family safe.

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