As the Internet grows—with tens of thousands of new users signing on each month—more and more of us become victims of electronic stalkers. “The same traditional crimes are being committed in a new environment where the criminals are allowed anonymity,” said Frank Clark, an investigator with the Pierce County, Washington prosecutor’s office. That anonymity, coupled with the lack of regulation and precedents, makes the Internet just about as lawless as any new frontier ever was. And that frontier is growing.
The Cyberstalking Crisis
The 2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics special report on stalking revealed that cyberstalking was involved in 25 percent of stalking incidents. But that can vary regionally. While Wayne Maxey, commander at San Diego District Attorney’s Office, estimated that cyberstalking accounted for 20 percent of the area’s stalking cases, the New York Police Department’s Computer Investigation and Technology Unit estimated that a full 40 percent of their case load involved cyberstalking.
Cyberstalking is defined by the National Center for Victims of Crime as “threatening behavior or un-wanted advances directed at another using the Internet and other forms of online and computer communications.”
No one actually knows how many people have become cyberstalking victims. In 2000, Parry Aftab, author of The Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, said that “if the [same stalking] ratio were reflected on the Internet [as in real life], then out of the estimated population of 79 million users worldwide, we would find 63,000 Internet stalkers cruising the information highway, stalking an estimated 474,000 targets.” Indeed, a 1999 U.S. Department of Justice report seemed to corroborate those numbers. Since then, however, the number of people online has grown to more than 30 percent of the world’s population. That’s more than 2 billion users. If the math holds, that translates to some 12 million current cyberstalking targets around the globe.
Meanwhile, the invasion of privacy has hit frighteningly sophisticated heights. Online companies called information brokers actually make a healthy profit marketing information about you, ranging from your address to your employment history.
Invasion of Online Privacy
Even if you’ve worked hard to maintain your privacy, a single credit header can undo all your efforts. Credit headers, which top credit reports, include your name, residential address and unlisted phone number, social security number and employer, data that’s routinely culled from any bank or car loan applications, mortgages or credit cards. And though the credit report itself is held to be legally confidential, the header is not. So the personal information you supplied in good faith gets sold by the country’s top three credit reporting agencies to online information brokers. They, in turn, sell it to anyone who wants it.
As with regular stalking, cyberstalking often begins when you attempt to break off a relationship. The posting of naked pictures taken during a relationship when things were good has become an increasingly popular method of revenge by jilted lovers. The phenomenon is not reserved for the young and restless, according to Maxey. “Never let yourself be photographed in the nude,” he recommended simply. “These days such pictures can end up being made public way too easily.”
Online vendettas can also stem from downright impersonal contact. The beliefs you express online can make you a target if someone disagrees with you. Even the way you express them—especially if you’re new to the online rules of the road—can inadvertently offend or humiliate someone.
Could You Become a Cyberstalking Target?
An obvious lack of online knowledge and experience can also make you a cyberstalking target. Just as in real-life stalking, cyber predators prey on the easy mark. “A newbie (inexperienced user online) will display a lack of confidence in online communication, will lack basic skills in cyberspace avoidance and escape skills, will be unable to block hostile attacks, and will probably not know the Internet complaint and reporting procedures,” said Aftab.
To avoid being targeted, Aftab recommends learning netiquette (etiquette for using the Internet), cyber street smarts (which include realizing that a user is not necessarily who he said he is), and gaining technical mastery of the Internet technology. Following these tips will help get you started:
- Opt for free email services where you don’t have to provide your name or address, since most Internet Service Providers make membership directories publicly available. If you’re having a problem, change your email address.
- Since women are especially vulnerable to online harassment, select a genderless screen or ID name. Don’t use your real name or nickname.
- Choose a complicated password that combines letters and numbers, then change it often.
- Don’t respond to online provocation.
- Don’t flirt online.
- Immediately get out of any hostile online communication by logging off or finding another site.
- Guard your privacy jealously. Avoid giving out personal information in discussion groups or chat rooms, including your real name, where you live, and what you do for a living. Remember that these online conversations are archived, and can be accessed by anyone.
- Facebook will not not be your friend if you reveal a lot of personal information that would be better kept private. If a potential stalker—either online or off—doesn’t know where you live, make absolutely sure it stays that way.
- On the commercial front, don’t fill out forms (including product registration forms) online, or participate in online or offline contests, sweepstakes or surveys.
- If you’re a university student, refrain from providing biographical information for the free university email service. Better yet, sign up for your own private email account.
Of course, children have also become prime targets for cyberstalkers. The FBI labels the sexual molestation of children one of the nation’s most significant problems. For the pedophile, of course, the Internet is a playground replete with possibilities. “Parents have the misconception that if their children are in their living room, they’re perfectly safe,” Deputy Jamie Watson, an online undercover detective from Bedford County, Virginia told 48 Hours. “What they don’t understand is their child is in their living room on their computer, [potentially] giving out their home address [or] talking to somebody who has every intention of taking the child away from Mom and Dad.
- If you have children online, make use of available software that can block their access to inappropriate chat rooms. Teach them that they have the power to put a stop to any and all disturbing online contact simply by logging off or finding another site. Direct them never to respond to unsuitable communications (not even in fun). And go online with your kids to see where they tend to surf.
- Really knowing the ins and outs of navigating the Internet is especially critical if you’re the parent of a young Internet user. So you may also want to consult Aftab’s website, located at www.cyberangels.org, which provides terrific advice for users and their parents. In addition to a Cyber 911 help-line, the site hosts a volunteer CyberMoms group that monitors Internet chat-rooms, online services and popular websites, and helps kids improve their online judgment. You’ll find another great kid-related online safety resource at www.getnetwise.org.
For more information about safeguarding yourself and your privacy online, log onto the National Center for Victims of Crime. Other websites that can help include the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Stalking Resource Center, and the Stalking Victims Sanctuary.
In the end, the responsibility to protect yourself and your children electronically starts and ends with you. Unfortunately, due to the Internet’s total lack of regulation even following every possible precaution may not be enough to protect you completely. You would think that sites threatening harm to someone would be against some kind of law. But when there are no laws, threats are as legal as anything else.
So user, go carefully into that dark ‘Net. And when Congress considers legislation that would mandate content monitoring systems or prohibit Internet companies from selling our personal information, put your wholehearted support behind it and make sure your voice is heard.