Cyberstalking: Help protect yourself against cyberstalking
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 protect against it.
What makes cyberstalking possible? The short answer is technology. Technology opens our lives up in many ways. You can chat with someone whether they’re in the next room or in another country with ease, through a variety of devices. You can access most of the world’s information within a matter of seconds.
On the flip side? The same technology that provides lightning-fast communication also provides a way for cyberstalkers to commit crimes.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is defined as online stalking. It involves the repeated use of the internet or other electronic means to harass, intimidate or frighten a person or group. Common characteristics of cyberstalking may include false accusations or posting derogatory statements, monitoring someone’s online activity or physical location, threats, identity theft, and data destruction or manipulation by sending a virus to a victim’s devices.
Cyberstalkers may use email, instant messages, phone calls, and other communication modes to stalk you. Cyberstalking can take the form of sexual harassment, inappropriate contact, or unwelcome attention to your life and to your family’s activities.
Social media stalking is not the same as cyberstalking
You might hear people use the term “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.
Catfishing is one method of online stalking. Here’s how it works. “Catfishers” pose as someone else, using social media sites to create an identity. They may use fake names, photos, and locations. They might approach the intended victim as a love interest or a mutual friend. Catfishing may be used for financial gain, to cyberbully a victim, or to cause reputational damage and embarrassment to a victim.
They often copy the profiles of an existing user. The goal is to provide the identity of an actual person and to use that identity to fool the victim.
Here are a few ways to spot a fake profile and help protect against catfishing.
- Do a reverse Google image search of the user’s profile picture. If they’re a fake, it will lead you to multiple profiles or to a website where the catfisher obtained the image.
- Check how many friends the user’s profile has. An average Facebook profile has around 300 friends. Catfishing profiles often have significantly fewer.
- Examine the user’s photos carefully. A real person will often have photos of themselves with friends and family or at public events. Catfishers often have selfies or modeling shots. Also, check to see if other people in their photos are tagged, helping to verify that they are friends with the people in the photos.
- If you suspect you’re being catfished, consider asking the user to Skype via webcam to verify their identity. If they make up excuses, that could be a red flag.
Here are a few pointers to help you protect against cyberstalking, whether it’s directed at you, your devices, or your family.
- Be careful about allowing physical access to your computer and other web-enabled devices like smartphones. Cyberstalkers can use software and hardware devices (sometimes attached to the back of your PC without you even knowing it) to monitor their victims.
- Be sure you always log out of your computer programs when you step away from the computer and use a screensaver with a password. The same goes for passwords on cell phones. Help your family and kids to develop the same good habits.
- Make sure to practice good password management and online account security. Create complex passwords and never share them with others. And be sure to change your passwords frequently. A password manager can help with this task.
- Delete or make private any online calendars or itineraries — even on your social network — where you list events you plan to attend. That information could allow a cyberstalker to know where and when you’re planning to be somewhere.
- A lot of personal information is often displayed on social networks, such as your name, date of birth, where you work, and where you live. Use the privacy settings in all your online accounts to limit your online sharing with those outside your trusted circle. You can use these settings to opt out of having your profile appear when someone searches for your name. You can block people from seeing your posts and photos, too.
- If you post photos online via social networks or other methods, be sure to turn off the location services metadata in the photo. The metadata reveals a lot of information about the photo — where and when it was taken, what device it was taken on, and other private information. Most often, metadata comes from photos taken on a mobile phone. You can turn this off — it’s usually a feature called geo-tagging — in your phone’s settings.
- Use a security software program such as NortonTM 360 with LifeLockTM to help prevent spyware from being installed onto your computer via a phishing attack or an infected web page. Security software could allow you to detect spyware on your device and decrease your chances of being cyberstalked.
- If you break up with someone that you were in a relationship with, be sure to change all of your online passwords. Even if you think that your ex-partner may not know them, it’s a good practice and an extra layer of protection.
Educate yourself about cyberstalking
It’s smart to know how cyberstalkers might target you.
With that in mind, never provide any personal information about yourself online, no matter how safe you think it might be.
Also, never indicate your real name, address, phone number, full date of birth, email address, or the city where you live to someone you don’t know personally.
Be aware of your own online presence
How much information can be found out about you online? Have you ever Googled yourself? If not, you should, just so you can be aware of what personal information is out there about you.
Try different combinations. Start with just your full name. Then try your name plus your phone number, your name plus your home address, and your name and your birthdate.
You can also use a Google image search with the same information to see what sites may be hosting information about you.
Don’t be shy about searching for yourself on social networks, too. You can also search for your family members to see what information is available about you through their profiles.
If you find that your sensitive personal information is easily available, there are a few ways you can get it removed from the internet.
In many cases, if a website has information such as your address, telephone number, date of birth, or photo, you will have to contact the website and ask to have the data removed.
If it’s sensitive personal information such as your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number, you can contact Google and they will remove it.
If you encounter someone that is engaging in cyberstalking behaviors and it seems serious, or 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.
If you’re being cyberstalked, remember to keep a copy of any message or online image that could serve as proof. Use the “print screen” or other keyboard functions to save screenshots.
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.
Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.
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