Like most things nowadays, stalking can occur online – and it's known as 'cyber-stalking'. Shady individuals can leverage social media, messaging apps, and even email to harass their victims at all times of the day.
The sheer amount of personal information we share online makes a cyber-stalker's task much easier. Armed with these details, the stalker can launch into a campaign of threats and defamation that leave the victim feeling incredibly frightened and exposed – and their friends and family might become involved – or even targeted themselves.
Cyber-stalking isn't limited to keeping a close watch over someone's Facebook account. It often involves threats, slander and libel, and even unsolicited requests of a sexual nature. Some cyber-stalkers even resort to identity theft to further embarrass and cause harm to their targets.
These cyber-stalkers work hard to preserve their anonymity, which makes them fiendishly hard to root out and report. Some use Tor to conceal their IPs or remailers to cover their tracks and create multiple social media accounts to bypass blocks and bans.
But what does the law say?
It's often incredibly difficult for law enforcement to pin crimes to a cyber-stalker. The internet is full of heartbreaking stories about victims who experienced severe online harassment and turned to the police... only to be told that there was nothing they could do. They often leave victims feeling helpless – but that doesn't mean there isn't hope – and the good news is that times are changing.
Despite being a relatively recent phenomenon, cyber-stalking is now accounted for in legislation across the world. In the US, it is classed as a criminal offense under state anti-stalking, slander, and harassment laws. Similarly, cyber-stalking is criminalized under the Protection from Harassment Act in the United Kingdom!
Why do people resort to cyber-stalking?
That's a complex question with many answers, as there are dozens of reasons that might drive someone to cyberstalk. It inevitably varies case by case, but jilted ex-lovers might act out of revenge, depression could take a toll on an individual, and extreme infatuation may influence a person. Some of the more common reasons for cyber-stalking include:
- Desire, either romantic or sexual
- An ex-lover seeking reconciliation or revenge
- Perceived attachment
- Envy and resentment of an individual
- Racially motivated resentment, or intolerance of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity
- A desire to scare or embarrass the individual with threats
- Severe mental health conditions
Modes of cyber-stalking
One of the great things about the internet is that we have many ways to stay connected – there're emails, social media, and instant messengers, to name a few. Unfortunately, a cyber-stalker can also use these channels to their advantage.
We spend a lot of time online, and we spend much of it communicating in some form or another, which makes cyber-stalking a particularly frightening and invasive crime. Victims often report feeling exposed, 24/7, and unsafe in their own homes.
Below, we've rounded up five of the most frequent methods of cyber-stalking.
Email is the digital alternative to sending letters – a more traditional, and physical, method of stalking. Hate mail and threats can be composed easily by a cyber-stalker and sent through a burner account or remailer, and these crooks tend to use email as an auxiliary mode of harassment.
Some victims endure a torrent of targeted emails, tailored to them and peppered with threats. However, even non-threatening emails can count as harassment; unwanted mail containing jokes, links, and images of a discriminatory nature can be just as unpleasant to receive.
It's also possible for cyber-stalkers to send malware to their victims and wreak havoc on their PC or mobile. The malware can install spyware, further facilitating the stalker's campaign of surveillance and data collection. Alternatively, cyber-stalkers can flood their victim's inbox with spam mail, drowning out legitimate messages and even crashing their email client. head over to our blog on email security tips to see what you can so to prevent people from targeting you via email.
Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are a direct line to the individuals behind the account – a fact that cyber-stalkers are fully aware of. They can bombard victims with comments, friend requests, tags, and turn on notifications to stay up to date with every new post or picture. Of course, cyber-stalkers can also abuse the public nature of social media to make defamatory comments about an individual without them knowing at all!
It's important to distinguish between negative comments and instances of cyber-stalking, however. An unfortunate reality of social media is that trolls and grumps are everywhere, and may go out of their way to leave you a nasty comment, but that rarely crosses the line into cyber-stalking. If these interactions take a threatening tone, happen multiple times a day, or come through numerous accounts, then that's a different story.
Another frightening aspect of social media stalking is how easily a stalker can gather information about their victim. They can browse posts from relatives and friends to learn more about an individual, use metadata contained in pictures to determine their location, and keep tabs on any trips or meetups that the victim shares online. However, it is possible to remove meta data from photos.
Texts and IMs
A cyber-stalker who knows the phone number, or instant messaging details, of their victim can send dozens – if not hundreds – of messages a day. Now, it's also possible to send voice clips, voicemails, images, and links, too. Whether they want to threaten their victim or demand their attention, texting is often the most direct means to do so.
It's also worth remembering that these texts don't need to be implicitly violent or threatening to count as cyber-stalking. If someone is texting you multiple times a day, it can still feel invasive and upsetting, particularly if the content of the messages is discriminatory or contains unsolicited advances or requests.
Impersonation tends to be more involved than other methods of cyber-stalking, and requires the stalker to co-opt the details of their victim online in order to defame, intimidate, or threaten them.
By using their victim's persona, the cyber-stalker might take to social media to compose embarrassing posts that could harm the individual's reputation at work or amongst friends. They might buy explicit items and have them shipped to their home or workplace, list items for sale, or direct threats to others in the victim's social circle. Some cyber-stalkers use impersonation to share pictures or videos of the victim without their express consent, too.
This method of cyber-stalking is massively damaging to a victim's sense of security. It's hard to feel in control of the situation when a crook is using your identity in such a perverse manner – however, impersonation can be prosecuted by criminal law if it severely harms the reputation of the victim!
Catfishing is a classic internet scam, and usually involves a crook assuming a fake identity to strike up a relationship with someone online for monetary gain. Some cyber-stalkers also turn to catfishing to harass their victims.
Some may be less interested in money and more interested in information, and develop close relationships with their victims in order to learn their personal details. Then, the cyber-stalker can release this information to embarrass the individual, damage their reputation, or facilitate a revenge campaign.
Alternatively, if a cyber-stalker has previously been caught out by their victim and blocked on social media, they may craft a new, fake identity. They could attempt to cozy up to their victim again to rekindle their harassment, or silently follow them, keeping tabs on their accounts and activity.