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What Is Cyberstalking? (9 Ways to Keep Yourself Safe)

cyberstalking

Despite cyberstalking being a pretty serious problem on the Internet nowadays, it doesn’t get the attention it actually “deserves.” Unfortunately, many people are unaware how dangerous it can be, and how badly it can impact their lives.

But what is cyberstalking, exactly? And how can you make sure you don’t have to deal with a cyberstalker?

Here’s everything you need to know:

What Is Cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking is the online equivalent of stalking. It’s the act of harassing someone on the Internet to the point where they can’t live their life normally out of fear of being harmed, blackmailed, or having their career ruined – to give a few examples.

Due to the level of anonymity somebody can enjoy on the web, it’s hard to tell if a cyberstalker is someone from another country you’ve never met or interacted with, or if it’s someone you know.

Cyberstalking victims are usually women, children, and teens, but cyberstalkers can also target young adult, adult, and older males.

Cyberstalking is often compared to cyberbullying, but it’s not exactly the same thing. It can sometimes start out as cyberbullying, but it often goes way beyond that considering how obsessive the cyberstalker is. Basically, if you were to consider the main differences between real-life stalking and bullying, they would apply to cyberstalking and cyberbullying too.

Quick Cyberstalking Facts

To really understand how serious of a problem cyberstalking is, here are some statistics that highlight that:

  • Around 1.5 million people in the US are victims of cyberstalking each year.
  • On average, a single incident of cyberstalking can last for around two years. If the cyberstalker had an intimate relationship with the victim, the incident can last for up to four years.
  • 1.5% of the entire US population will experience at least one instance of cyberstalking, while 4% of women worldwide will experience cyberstalking at least once in their lives.
  • The average person is 20 times more likely to become the victim of cyber crime than to be robbed in real-life.
  • WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse), a cyberstalking support group, says it receives around 75 cyberstalking-related complaints each week.

How Does Cyberstalking Work?

Cyberstalking obviously takes place over the web, but what kind of platforms and communication channels do cyberstalkers use to harass people? Well, it can be any of the following:

  • Social media websites (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.)
  • Instant messaging applications and websites
  • Online forums and blogs
  • Websites like YouTube
  • Email services
  • Dating websites

Basically, any place on the Internet where you might be active, and which might contain any information associated with you. Cyberstalkers can also use any of those platforms to gather information about their victims.

Cyberstalkers will normally gather tons of data about their targets – like their email addresses, social media profiles and activity, current whereabouts, relationship status, social life, where they work at, mobile phone numbers, where they live, and their preferences/dislikes. Really “dedicated” cyberstalkers will even go as far as trying to find out intimate details about their victims, usually with the help of malware infections.

With enough info gathered, cyberstalkers will generally do any of the following:

  • Create fake social media accounts or try to impersonate other people on social media, and send messages to or interact with the victim.
  • Spam the victim with threats, pornographic photos and videos, and malicious links and attachments that contain malware and viruses.
  • Use malware (like spyware, keyloggers, ransomware) to try and steal sensitive data from victims (like login credentials, credit card numbers, personal photos, documents, videos, etc.).
  • Aggressively blackmail victims to do things they don’t consent to – usually illegal stuff.
  • Harass victims on social media, in chat rooms, on messaging apps, on blogs, or on forums.
  • Monitor where the victim might be at any given time, and using that knowledge to scare them.
  • Creating fake profiles impersonating the victim, or setting up websites that contains sensitive information about the person in question.
  • Harass friends, family, and work colleagues of the victim.
  • Take over any of the victim’s accounts if they manage to steal their login credentials.

Cyberstalking Punishment – What’s the Legal Status?

Since cyberstalking can be really harmful for anyone who’s subjected to it, just how is it regulated by the law?

Well, the bad news is that there isn’t a great number of countries that take legal action against cyberstalking. Luckily, there are a few that see it for the threat that it is.

The US

Things get a bit complicated since states have different ways of dealing with cyberstalking. Plus, it’s also worth noting that cyberbullying and cyberstalking are basically considered the same thing, with the difference being that cyberbullying is considered to be committed by minors, while cyberstalking is considered to be committed by adults. Also, the way freedom of speech is protected in the country can interfere with taking legal action against cyberstalking. Though, real threats are not considered protected speech.

Now, let’s see how different states handle cyberstalking:

  • Harassing someone using an electronic device, computer, or through email is illegal in the following states:
    • Connecticut
    • Hawaii
    • New York
    • New Hampshire
    • Illinois
    • Arizona
    • Alabama
  • Anti-stalking laws apply to electronic messages in the following states:
    • California
    • Oklahoma
    • Wyoming
    • Alaska
    • Florida
  • Cyberstalking is directly banned in Florida.
  • Using electronic means to stalk someone is illegal in Texas.
  • Cyberbullying, online harassment, and stalking is illegal in Missouri.
  • States that don’t have specific anti-cyberstalking legislation might prohibit them under anti-harassment laws.

Europe

Surprisingly enough, the EU doesn’t have a clear anti-cyberstalking law in place. The EU enacted numerous Directives to combat cybercrime, but none of them talk about cyberstalking directly. Depending on what the cyberstalker does, though, their actions might be prosecuted if they go against anti-harassment, anti-stalking, anti-hate speech, and anti-libel laws. Also, cyberstalking that involves minors might also be classified under the Directive concerning anti-child pornography laws.

European countries that have taken specific legal action against cyberstalking include Poland, Spain, and the UK.

Asia

India started considering cyberstalking a criminal offence back in 2013. In Japan, cyberstalking on social media is considered an offense, and so is sending threats through emails. South Korea has a stranger take on cyberstalking, as police officers can actually crack down on hateful comments without them having to be reported by the victims.

Lastly, in the Philippines, it’s likely that cyberstalking is covered by the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

Australia and New Zealand

In Australia, cyberstalking can be considered a crime seeing as how using any form of technology to harass someone has been illegal since 1999.

New Zealand legislation allows cyberstalking victim to report the act to the police, and immediate action can be taken if it’s considered that the victim or anyone/anything they know/own is in danger.

Canada

In Canada, cyberstalking is considered criminal harassment since all forms of stalking are illegal. However, it’s worth noting that only some sections of the Canadian Criminal Code will apply to cyberstalking incidents depending on how they took place.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

One can argue that cyberstalking is covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because this is what Article 5 of the declaration says:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

So, in theory, cyberstalking should be illegal pretty much anywhere in the world just because of that, though not all law enforcement officers are likely to see it that way.

Cyberstalking Prevention Tips – 9 Ways to Stay Safe

The best way to combat cyberstalking is to prevent it, so here are nine tips to help you do just that.

By the way, if you happen to be worried about your kids becoming the victims of cyberstalking, you should follow all the advice below and help them apply it in real life, and check out this article on cyberbullying too – some of the tips there can prove useful in such a situation.

1. Limit the Amount of Info You Share Online

Cyberstalkers’ success heavily relies on them being able to collect plenty of information about you. So, it’s obvious that the best way to make that much more difficult to them is to reduce the amount of data they can link to you. Ideally, you should be as anonymous as possible.

The best way to do that is to not share too much personally identifiable information on public forums and profiles. For example, you should never make you real social media account, email address, mobile phone number, or physical address visible to everyone.

Also, you should take the time to read through a website’s Terms of Services and Privacy Policy if it requires you to create an account to see what data they collect from you, and how they handle it. If they make it clear they’ll share your personal information with third-party advertisers, and that they don’t store it on securely encrypted servers, there’s a risk some of it might end up in the wrong hands.

Besides that, you should make sure all your social media profiles are set to be private. That way, potential cyberstalkers won’t be able to keep tabs on what you’re doing, or learn more about you. Sure, it can be a bit inconvenient that some of your posts might not go as viral as you’d wish, but it’s better than becoming a cyberstalking victim. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some guides for the most popular platforms:

2. Use Powerful Antivirus/Antimalware Protection

A lot of cybercriminals rely on malware to get access to information they can use to blackmail or impersonate you. Making sure all your devices are secured with strong antimalware/antivirus programs is the best way to stop that from happening. Not to mention such programs will also make sure you don’t land on malicious phishing links and pages too.

There are plenty of antivirus/antimalware software providers to choose from, but our recommendations are Malwarebytes and ESET.

Just make sure the programs are enabled at all times, and that they’re always up-to-date. We know that regular updates can be annoying if they get in the way of what you’re doing, but skipping out on just one simple update can make your whole system vulnerable to some new type of malware.

3. “Google” Yourself and Remove Personal Data

“Googling” yourself might sound narcissistic, but it’s a useful way to see what kind of data is available for anyone to see on the web. And we don’t just mean typing in your full name into the search bar. You should also try looking up other information like:

  • Your mobile phone number
  • Your email address
  • The physical address
  • Your full name + the name of a social media platform or any website you have an account on
  • You social media/instant messaging app account name

If you find any revealing information that shouldn’t be on the web, try to see if you can have it removed. Either access the account you have on the platform and do it manually, or try to contact the website owners, and ask them to delete it for you. The latter idea might not work all the time, but – depending on your country’s privacy laws – you can mention that you’re willing to pursue legal action if the data isn’t removed.

You should also try to remember if you had an account on any social media platforms that aren’t as popular nowadays like myspace or hi5. They might contain revealing info that you added to your profile years ago. Also, if you have an old tumblr account, you should check if any sensitive info is posted on it too.

Of course, old Facebook profiles where you posted too much data about you over the past years can be a problem too. Unfortunately, deleting all your info alongside removing the posts one by one can take up way too much time. Luckily, there’s this helpful extension that lets you mass delete posts and info in bulk.

TweetDeleter can also be pretty useful if you want to remove old Tweets that cybersalkers might use against you.

4. Use a VPN to Secure Online Traffic

If you’re not familiar with VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), they are online services that can be used to both mask IP addresses and encrypt online traffic, making sure nobody can monitor it.

How does that help with cyberstalking? Well, for one, no cyberstalker would be able to track your online movements and communications when you use unsecured WiFi – like public networks, for example.

You could use your home network to avoid unencrypted traffic, sure, but if it’s not properly secured (it’s using outdated encryption), a cyberstalker could still find a way to monitor it. Even worse, the highest level of WiFi encryption (WPA2 – for the moment, at least) can be broken with the right cyber attack.

So, it’s best to make sure you have an extra layer of security whenever you browse the web, and a VPN can offer you just that.

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Plus, we also offer DNS leak protection, so you don’t need to worry about a cyberstalker getting your IP address that way. Also, our service has a built-in Kill Switch that ensures you’re never exposed – not even if your VPN connection happens to go down.

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5. Create Secure Passwords for All Accounts

One smart way to make sure a cyberstalker can’t take over your accounts easily is to set up powerful passwords. None of that “hou$e” or “123456568” kind of stuff. We’re talking about really secure passwords that take decades or centuries to break even with a cracking tool.

We’ve got a guide that can help you come up with a decent password right here, but if you want some quick tips right now, here’s what you need to do:

  • Don’t use any dictionary words or obvious substitutions (using “0” instead of “O”).
  • If you really need to use real words, make sure you invert them.
  • Make your password an acronym for a phrase (“HvJN20ya“ for “He visited Norway 20 years ago.”).
  • If possible, use space characters within the password.
  • Make your password a mix of numbers, symbols, and lowercase and uppercase letters.
  • Make sure your password is at least over 15 characters long.

Also, make sure you create a different password for each account you own. It’s a bit of a hassle, yes, but it’s much safer. This way, even if a cyberstalker somehow gets access to a password to one of your accounts, they won’t be able to use it (or variations of it) to break into your other accounts.

To make keeping track of multiple passwords easier, consider using a password manager like Bitwarden, PSONO, or LessPass.

6. Change Your Email Addresses and Passwords Regularly

If you want to make sure you don’t easily become a cyberstalking victim, you need to change your email addresses and passwords quite often. This way, it’s not only harder for cyberstalkers to take over your accounts, but it’s also more difficult for them to track and find you on the Internet.

How often should you change them? Well, it’s difficult to say. Many security experts say you need to change them monthly, while others say it’s okay to change them every three months or so. In our opinion, both options work well. If you want to be very sure a cyberstalker can’t harass you, you should try to change them weekly – at least until you get rid of him/her.

If you happen to be the victim of an abusive relationship, and you just left it, change all your email addresses and passwords immediately. There’s no telling when the abuser might try to take control over them, and subject you to intense cyberstalking.

7. Don’t Share Sensitive Info and Content Over the Web

By that, we’re mostly referring to sending people intimate photos and videos of yourself over social media, Skype, email, or any other instant messaging platform. You might think you’re sending them to trustworthy people, but just how well do you know them? Even if it’s someone you’re in a relationship with, that’s not the kind of content you want them to have access to if you ever break up.

Of course, we’re also talking about sharing things like passwords, credit card numbers, or bank account details. That’s not the kind of info that should be freely shared over public networks.

Plus, if there’s no way to be sure the communication channel you are using is 100% encrypted and hacker-proof, sending such content and information over it is very risky. What if a data breach occurs, or what if a skilled cybercriminal manages to listen in on your traffic? All that sensitive data will fall in the wrong hands of a cyberstalker who wants to ruin your life – and now they’ll have the means to do it.

And while you could use a VPN to secure most of the traffic, we’d still advise against sharing this kind of content or info with other people. There’s just no telling what kind of arguments might cost you your friendship or relationships, and how they’d use all the data you’ve shared with them.

After all, statistics do show that around 70% of cyberstalking victims personally knew the cyberstalker in some way.

8. Learn About Phishing

Phishing is when someone tries to trick you into revealing sensitive information by impersonating someone (your bank, a distant relative, your friends and family, lawyers, law enforcement, etc.). They will either try to get you to reveal the information they want (credit card numbers, login credentials, personally identifiable details) through phishing messages, or they’ll try to trick you into accessing malicious links and attachments that will infect your device with spyware, adware, ransomware, or keyloggers.

It’s best to check out our guide on phishing (alongside pharming and spam) to learn how it usually works, and what tell-tale signs you need to look out for.

9. Monitor Your Credit Cards and Online Payment Accounts Often

Since cyberstalkers like to mess around with their victims’ finances, it’s a good idea to always keep tabs on them. Make sure payment notifications (for any amount of money) are enabled on all your accounts. Also, take the time each week or every couple of days to check your credit card and online payment account balances to see if there are any differences (no matter how small).

If you do notice any unexpected changes in your balances, that’s a sign some cybercriminals has manage to get their hands on your login credentials.

One good way to protect yourself from losing access to your payment accounts and credit cards is to enable multi-factor authentication on all accounts. Most banking accounts and payment processor accounts (like PayPal) should have that feature.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Never try to confront the cyberstalker since they thrive off attention, and don’t agree to meet up with them in person.
  • Try to get as much emotional support as possible – it really helps in such situations.
  • Consider not using your real name when setting up a social media account. At the very least, don’t choose a name that makes your gender too obvious.
  • Never leave your device unattended in a public place.
  • If available, use filters that can block unwanted communications from strangers.
  • Try not to make any future plans too public (where you’re going out, when you’re going on vacation, when you’re not at home, etc.).
  • Never delete messages sent to you by a cyberstalker – they can be useful evidence.

“What If I’m Already the Victim of a Cyberstalker?”

If you’re dealing with a cyberstalker, the first thing you need to do is collect as much evidence as you can – screenshots of the messages and emails you were sent, any videos you received, the names and email addresses the cyberstalker uses, etc. Make sure you have enough proof gathered, and then contact your local authorities.

Now, depending on how cyberstalking is treated by the law in your country, it can sometimes be difficult to be taken seriously. However, if you’ve got enough proof showing someone is harassing and threatening you, that should be enough for action to be taken. Also, you should consider the option of sending DMCA Takedown notices ASAP. You can try working with a lawyer to see how you can do that, or use online services like DMCA.com.

If you’re dealing with websites and blogs that are posting photos and videos of you, or saying harmful things about you, you should also try using WhoIsHostingThis to see if you can find out who owns them. While you might not always be able to contact the owner to have the content taken down, you can provide the details to the police.

In case you’re dealing with any harassment on social media, try to report it. Most platforms will take it seriously, and shut down the cyberstalker’s account. If you’re getting threats or anything like that, the platform will likely involve the police too.

Obviously, changing your social media accounts, email addresses, mobile numbers, credit cards, and passwords is a must right now. It’s quite the hassle, we know, but it’s important you do that to throw the cyberstalker off your online trail.

What Is Cyberstalking? The Main Idea

So, what is cyberstalking?

Like real-life stalking, cyberstalking is when you are harassed, threatened, and continuously stalked by someone you either know or don’t know. The only difference is that this happens on the Internet, though it can escalate to real-life encounters if the cyberstalker is very “determined.”

Cyberstalking can happen on social media, public forums, instant messaging apps, and through email. The cyberstalker might have a personal grudge against the victim (like being an ex), they might target them in the hopes of stealing money from the victim, or just try to ruin the victim’s life “for fun.”

While some countries have taken steps to make cyberstalking illegal, it still happens around the world, and isn’t always punished by the authorities. So, the best way to protect yourself from it is to learn how to prevent it. Ideally, you should:

  • Learn all you can about phishing to protect yourself from it.
  • Keep tabs on your credit cards and online payment accounts to make sure nobody is tampering with them.
  • Secure your devices with antivirus/antimalware protection.
  • Use a VPN whenever you’re online.
  • Don’t share sensitive content and information over the web if you can.
  • Create strong passwords to secure your accounts.
  • Change your email addresses and passwords on a regular basis.
  • Don’t make personal information about yourself too public. It’s best to make all your social media accounts fully private.
  • Look yourself up on Google, see what kind of information is on display, and try to remove it if necessary.

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Tim has been writing content and copy for a living for over 4 years, and has been covering VPN, Internet privacy, and cybersecurity topics for more than 2 years. He enjoys staying up-to-date with the latest in Internet privacy news, and helping people find new ways to secure their online rights.