Stalking is very real issue, and the internet has given perpetrators even more access to their victims’ personal lives. You might think there’s nothing you can do if you’re dealing with cyberstalking, but there are steps you can take. And since January is National Stalking Awareness Month, this is the time to become educated on this web-based crime.
The term “cyberstalking” can be used in a flippant way when discussing how you might go down a social media wormhole when it comes to an ex or a crush. But cyberstalking is a serious issue — and illegal. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, stalking is:
When it comes to the cyber element, stalking can include unwelcome emails from the stalker, the stalker harassing you on the internet, and the stalker spreading rumors about you online.
Starting in 2004, the National Center for Victims of Crime has recognized January as National Stalking Awareness Month. It wasn’t until 2016 that President Barack Obama officially recognized National Stalking Awareness Month and noted that many stalking victims are women (one in six women compared to one in 19 men). Cyberstalking is also a serious component of stalking — especially considering that the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that approximately one in four stalking victims communicated that they experienced some form of cyberstalking.
Although state law may differ on what qualifies as stalking and cyberstalking, the Office for Victims of Crime, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, launched a program in 2016 to help judicial professionals better respond to victims of cyberviolence. Anyone who has ever been stalked on the internet understands the seriousness of cyberstalking, so the federal government making efforts to change this culture is a step in the right direction.
If you’re experiencing cyberstalking, you will need to take action immediately to help stop it. While U.S. law has a long way to go when it comes to protecting victims of cyberstalking, these steps will help when it comes to getting your privacy back.
Report it to the authorities.
The Stalking Resource Center — in partnership with the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice — created a tip sheet for stalking victims, and the very first tip is to trust your instincts. Though others may try to downplay what’s happening to you, don’t doubt yourself. The Stalking Resource Center notes that every state has laws against stalking, so you can contact your local authorities and explain why the perpetrator’s behavior is making you uncomfortable. You can also report internet-related crimes through the U.S. Department of Justice, and FightCyberstalking.org recommends that you file a complaint with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.
Keep — and make copies of — all evidence.
When your cyberstalker sends you emails, DMs, or any other type of online message, make sure you keep them. You may even want to print them and make copies. This includes messages or comments sent through social media sites. If your cyberstalker got your phone number and texted you or left you a voicemail, you’ll need to save those, too, even though you’ll most likely want to erase them from your phone forever.
Log all instances of harassment.
Along with evidence, it’s also helpful to document the time and date when the perpetrator cyberstalked you. If anyone else was present when you were stalked, ask them to write down what they saw. This stalking and incident behavior log from the Stalking Resource Center gives you a good place to start.
Retired FBI agent Jeff Lanza, who focuses on cybersecurity, told FOX News in 2010 that it’s important not to engage with your cyberstalker, since your stalker wants you to communicate with them. So even though you may be tempted, just log the interaction, save it, and don’t respond.
Protect your online presence.
Although it seems impossible, there are a number of ways to stop harassers from contacting you or accessing your information. Create Google Alerts to see if your name is being used on the internet. You can block negative comments on your Instagram account and limit who can post on your Facebook Timeline. If the stalking is severe, ABC News also suggests buying the domain of your name and family members’ names, so your stalker can’t create a hate site with your names. You can also remove yourself from search directories, like Whitepages, since those directories make it easy for a person to access your personal information.
Stop using certain apps and set protective measures in place.
The National Network To End Domestic Violence notes that a stalker can monitor a person’s activity using spyware or track someone using the GPS on the victim’s cell phone. Therapist Alexandra Katehakis wrote for the Huffington Post that you should set a reminder every 30 to 45 days to change your password on every online site you access. And if you think someone has installed spyware on your phone or computer, the Federal Trade Commission recommends backing up your device (which could provide evidence of the spyware) and then resetting it — along with contacting the local authorities.
Seek emotional support.
Stalking takes a massive emotional toll on you, so FightCyberstalking.org notes how important getting emotional support is. Along with reporting the abuse to authorities, speaking to trusted friends and family, and contacting a stalking hotline, you may want to seek out professional help if fear is taking over your life.
Cyberstalking is a problem that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, as we continue to become more dependent on our devices. So during National Stalking Awareness Month and any other month, treat it as seriously as in-person stalking.