Cyberstalkers: Online Predators Pose Offline Dangers
When stalking cases hit the headlines, there’s usually a celebrity involved. But recent statistics reveal that every year, 1 million women and nearly 400,000 men become victims of stalkers. And increasingly, those incidents involve cyberstalking – stalking behavior that starts with, but isn’t always limited to, the Internet and other communications devices. It’s a pattern of harassment that can lead to physical harm and even death – but the danger is often dismissed because “it’s just online.”.
Ever since the Internet became a key part of everyday life, bad behaviors from the “real” world have moved online. The anonymous nature of online identities makes it easy to say and do things that people might not otherwise be able to. So it’s no surprise that various kinds of abusive behaviors would be right at home in a virtual world that’s both completely detached from other people and, thanks to social media, intimately connected with them as well.
Hence the rise of cyberharassment and cyberbullying – the most publicized form of online abuse. Cyberharassment is usually taken to refer to online harassment targeting adults. It comes in many forms, mainly nasty emails, tweets or comments. Harassers do things like set an autoresponder to send an automated message to the target every five minutes, message them constantly, or flood their inboxes with angry messages.
Cyberbullying is a subset of cyberharassment that generally refers to bullying behavior that targets minors. Like bullying in the real world, it can be cruel and vicious, driving vulnerable children, often girls or teens who are ”different” in some way, to depression, self-mutilation and even suicide. Cyberbullying, like its real world counterpart, usually involves classmates or peers of the targeted child. And for that reason, law enforcement has largely turned cyberbullying issues over to local schools and awareness groups.
But cyberstalking adds a darker twist. Like offline stalking, cyberstalkers may or may not know the target. Their motives are complex, too, involving a mix of emotions and needs that drive the stalking behavior. That’s why cyberstalking has more potential for going out of the virtual world than harassment or bullying – and why, although it’s often lumped together with those other kinds of online harassment, it’s more likely to result in a physical encounter.
The reasons, say experts at iPredator and Working to Halt Online Abuse, have to do with the dynamics of stalking. Most bullies and harassers want to hide online. It’s the perfect cloak for their behavior, and they can indulge in all manner of vicious abuse from the safety of their own computer. They have no wish to take the harassment into the real world where they’d have to face real consequences.
Cyberstalkers are different – and that’s why they shouldn’t be dismissed as just another kind of online nuisance that can be largely ignored. According to iPredator, some cyberstalkers take to the Internet to find victims, using tools like chat rooms, social media pages and hangouts to get the information they need to take the stalking further – to get close to someone in the real world for reasons that range from the relatively innocent to the deadly.
Psychologists break down stalking behaviors in various ways, but stalkers usually fall into two groups: they know the target (or know of them) and they’re trying to connect with them, or they’re targeting complete strangers who fit a predetermined profile to work out psychological needs.
Stalkers in the first group may be lovelorn people who may have lost a relationship with the target and are trying to get a chance to repair things. They might be people who have problems establishing relationships, so they seize on a person who represents what they want and imagine all kinds of rosy futures with them. They don’t really want to harm the target, but their intense, needy behavior gets creepy.
On the other side, though, are the true predators, who troll chat rooms and social sites looking for just the right target. They visit these sites and collect personal information including names, addresses and places where people hang out. They may not ever actually make contact with the target online. But armed with someone’s address, cell phone number and information like the name of a restaurant where a birthday party’s planned, they can easily find the target for whatever purposes they have in mind – which generally involve fear, terror and violence.
Because online harassment and stalking are becoming more common, most states have either enacted new laws that specifically name these behaviors as crimes, or added cybercrime to their existing laws. Punishment varies; some states call it a misdemeanor unless it turns into another, more serious crime such as abduction. Others call it a felony.
Whatever the outcome, though, cybercrime specialists say that it’s essential to report anything that makes an Internet user uncomfortable. WHOA, which has a database of cyberharassment and cyberstalking cases, gets an average of 50 reports a week from people who believe they’re being stalked, and many of them say bringing the problem to law enforcement doesn’t help.
That’s why cybersecurity experts say that Internet users are their own best first defense – and being smart and proactive can either stop the problem in its tracks or bolster a criminal complaint. Basic tips for thwarting cyberstalkers include:
- If you’re approached inappropriately on a social site, stay off the site for at least 24 hours.
- If the contact continues, delete your account. You can always create another one.
- Take an inventory of your entire online identity, including sites you may have registered for and then forgotten about.
- Delete anything that makes it easy to identify you, or get rid of those old accounts completely. Avoid including any “real world” contact information in online profiles.
- Keep copies of any emails, comments or messages that concern you. They create a paper trail for evidence.
- Report the behavior to the site. They can block or delete an inappropriate user’s account.
- Message and post safely. Don’t disclose specific details about where you are or what your plans are – that can help a stalker find you easily.
- Make a report to the usual law enforcement entities such as local police and the FBI.
The Internet is a wide-open, new frontier, with all that a frontier implies: endless opportunity, constant change and chances to make new friends. But those same features make it easy for predators and bullies to roam at will. And just as on the frontier of the past, individuals need to take steps to protect themselves until the sheriff rides into town. (Carla McKinney – VNN)
“Cybertstalking Now More Common Than Face to Face Stalking.” The Guardian. Guardian.co.uk 8 Apr 2011
“Online Harassment/Cyberstalking Statistics.” Working to Halt Online Abuse. HaltAbuse.com. 2 Mar 2014
“Stalking and Cyberstalking Facts.” iPredator. iPredator.com 2 Mar 2014.
“What is Cyberstalking?” CyberAngels. Cyerstalking/Harassment. CyberAngels.com 2 Mar 2014