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When carried out sensibly and securely, communication through social networks and other online public forums can be beneficial, both socially and professionally. However, if you’re not careful, it can lead to numerous undesirable consequences, one of which is cyberstalking.

Cyberstalking is stalking or harassment carried out over the internet. It might target individuals, groups, or even organizations and can take different forms including slander, defamation and threats. Motives may be to control or intimidate the victim or to gather information for use in other crimes, like identity theft or offline stalking.

While blame shouldn’t be placed on cyberstalking victims, the current online landscape lends itself to creating “easy targets.” For example, nowadays, many social media users think nothing of publicly posting personal information, sharing their feelings and desires, publishing family photos and more.

In this post, we’ll explain cyberstalking further and provide tips on how to ensure you don’t become a cyberstalking victim.

What is cyberstalking?

As mentioned, cyberstalking can take many different forms, but in the broadest sense, it is stalking or harassment that takes place via online channels such as social media, forums or email. It is typically planned and sustained over a period of time.

Cases of cyberstalking can often begin as seemingly harmless interactions. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, a few strange or perhaps unpleasant messages may even amuse you. However, if they become systematic, it becomes annoying and even frightening.

For example, if you’ve received a few negative comments on Facebook and Instagram, it may upset or annoy you, but this isn’t cyberstalking yet. For some people, such as semi-celebrities looking for attention, negative comments are actually welcomed.

However, once you start receiving unwanted and annoying messages repeatedly and feel harassed, then the line has likely been crossed. Cyberstalkers might terrorize victims by sending unpleasant messages systematically, perhaps even several times a day. It is especially unnerving when such messages come from different accounts managed by the same person. It is probably a good idea to report this to both the website owners and law enforcement agencies.

Cyberstalking doesn’t have to involve direct communication, and some victims may not even realize they are being stalked online. Perpetrators can monitor victims through various methods and use the information gathered for crimes like identity theft. In some cases, the line between cyberspace and real life can become blurred. Attackers can collect your personal data, contact your friends and attempt to harass you offline.

Who is behind cyberstalking?

Most cyberstalkers are familiar with their victims. For most people, frequent messages from friends or colleagues, although often distracting and sometimes annoying, are welcome. However, being monitored by or receiving intrusive messages from an unfamiliar person or a casual acquaintance can be considered cyberstalking. It can have many motives including revenge, anger, control or even lust.

Plenty of cyberstalking cases involve someone attempting to get the attention of a former or would-be partner. While some people may see this behavior as acceptable and even romantic, if the communication is unwanted, it can be considered harassment. If this happens to you, you can ask that they stop and take measures such as blocking them from your social media accounts. If it persists through other channels, it may be time to call the police (more on that below).

Other cases of cyberstalking, particularly those involving celebrities or other high-profile individuals, might involve complete strangers. Some perpetrators suffer from mental health issues and even believe their behavior is welcomed.

Cyberstalking isn’t always conducted by individuals and might involve a group of people. They could be targeting an individual, group or organization for various reasons including opposing beliefs, revenge or financial gain.

Legal aspects of cyberstalking

It is difficult to find and punish professional attackers because they know how to anonymize themselves behind fake personas. Plus, most countries have not yet adopted specific laws that regulate cyberstalking. For example, in the US, cyberstalking falls under harassment and anti-stalking laws. Depending on the severity of the case, a fine or even imprisonment may be applied.

Cyberstalking specifically has been addressed in U.S. federal law – the Violence Against Women Act.  However, there still remains a lack of federal legislation to address stalking by electronic means, and the majority of legislation is done at the state level. The first U.S. cyberstalking law went into effect in California. Since 1999, there have been a number of high-profile legal cases related to cyberstalking.

How to avoid cyberstalking?

As with many things in life, it’s better to be proactive than reactive when it comes to cyberstalking. Becoming a victim will be far less likely if you follow our five simple tips below. These guidelines will enable you to enjoy all the benefits of online communication while remaining completely safe.

1) Keep a low profile

Keeping a subdued online existence is tough for some people, especially those who need to use online platforms for self-promotion or business-related activities. However, many users could benefit from toning things down a little. You should always avoid posting personal details such as your address and phone number, and think carefully about revealing real-time information such as where you are and who you’re with.

In an ideal world, you would avoid using your real name in online profiles. While this is difficult for anything work-related, it’s quite feasible for things like forums, message boards and certain social media accounts. For example, you can use a nickname on Instagram or Twitter.

If you must maintain your real name and photo, be very wary about who you accept connection requests and messages from. If it’s not a friend, relative or colleague, do some checks before moving forward.

In some cases, it’s almost impossible to avoid revealing personal information and connecting with people you don’t know, for example, on dating websites. Unfortunately, these are popular with scammers, and you may even end up chatting with a potential cyberstalker. For this reason, it’s best to stick with reputable sites, do some research about a suitor before revealing personal information or meeting in person and report any activity that makes you feel uncomfortable to the site’s administrators.

2) Update your software

Keeping your software up-to-date may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about cyberstalking prevention. However, regular software updates are crucial when it comes to preventing information leaks. Many updates are developed to patch security vulnerabilities and help ensure your information remains safe.

They are especially important for mobile devices which contain valuable data and track your exact location. There are numerous cases in which cyberstalking begins when an attacker pays someone to hack your email or phone and uses the gathered information against you. A such, protecting yourself from hackers is key to cyberstalking prevention.

3) Hide your IP address

Many applications and services reveal your IP address to the person with whom you’re communicating. This may seem unimportant, but this information is directly related to your personal data. For example, your IP address is linked to the internet bill that is sent to your home and which you pay with your credit card. Cyberstalkers can begin with your IP address and use it to find your credit card data and physical address.

To mask your IP address you can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This hides your real IP address and replaces it with from a location of your choice, so you could even appear to be in a different country. It also encrypts all of your internet traffic, keeping it safe from the prying eyes of hackers.

Another option is to use the Tor browser. This also encrypts your traffic, although it may raise flags for law enforcement agencies as it’s commonly used by criminals themselves. For the ultimate in privacy and anonymity, you can combine Tor and a VPN. Note that it’s not recommended you use a web proxy or a free VPN service, as these can often harm your online security more than they help it.

4) Maintain good digital hygiene

‘Digital hygiene’ is a new term but represents a very important topic, especially with regard to social networks. Maintaining good digital hygiene helps protect you from cyber harassment, cyberbullying and cyberstalking.

Adjusting privacy settings is one of the first steps you can take to “clean up” your accounts. Most social media platforms and some other types of online accounts will let you adjust who can see your profile and contact you.

It’s also a good idea to keep things like your timelines, feeds and message threads free from negative comments. Aside from potentially fueling more negativity from others, these can have a significant emotional impact when you re-read them. For example, psychological support is regularly provided to website moderators, as they seriously suffer from reading aggressive messages, even those that aren’t sent to them personally.

Social media hygiene is especially important for girls and women. Studies show that although the majority of internet attacks are aimed at men, cyberstalking, in particular, is mostly aimed at women.

5) Avoid disclosing sensitive information

Surprisingly, many people constantly share personal information about themselves, even outside of social media platforms. By filling out questionnaires or submitting applications for coupons, you are increasing the likelihood of someone getting their hand on your personal data and possibly making cyberstalking more accessible.

What to do in case you are being cyberstalked

  • Block the person

Don’t hesitate to apply all measures permitted by law, especially those offered by web services. If the tools are there, block anyone who you wish to stop hearing from, even if these messages are just annoying and not yet threatening. Only you can decide when this boundary has been passed.

  • Report to the platform involved

If someone is harassing or threatening you, you should block them immediately and report their behavior to the platform involved. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn,and many other platforms have created easy-to-use buttons to quickly report abusive behavior.

Even if you think you are rid of the perpetrator, they may come back or pursue more victims. Law enforcement agencies do not always have the technical ability to protect you from cyberstalking, but platform moderators usually respond quickly and delete attackers’ profiles.

  • Call the police

If you believe their behavior is illegal or you fear for your safety, then you should contact the police and report the cyberstalker. Even if you don’t have enough information or evidence for them to prosecute immediately, the report will go on record and the police can offer advice about what to do if the perpetrator persists.

Minimizing damage

If you find yourself caught up in a case of cyberstalking, there are two main methods to minimize the adverse consequences:

  • Reduce the amount of information available about you online.
  • Increase the amount of fake information about you that will mislead an attacker.

Reducing the amount of information available

We’ve offered some tips to this effect above, such as adjusting your privacy settings and practicing good digital hygiene. If you are under attack from a cyberstalker, you may want to clean up your online presence even further by deleting any old accounts and trying to remove any information or images that pop up in search queries.

Removing information about you from the internet is not as difficult as it seems. If you live in the European Union, this can even be done by exercising your right to be forgotten (through the European Court of Justice) and have Google or Bing remove your personal information from the registry.

Using fake profiles to act as decoys

This may sound extreme, but it could be helpful in some situations to add profiles to social networks that include fake personas using your name or picture. You can supply those profiles with different addresses, jobs and interests. You can also change some information in your real profiles and use one of the fake accounts as your primary for some time.

This tactic will help to mislead the cyberstalker and create doubts that this is really you. Just be sure to check the rules and regulations for those platforms before doing this.

Cyberstalking is a big problem, but it is easier to prevent it than to try to solve it and eliminate the consequences.

Fortunately, law enforcement agencies, security professionals and social media platforms are on your side and are ready to provide you with useful tools and methods of protection. For example, social media platforms make it easy to report abuse and reputable VPN providers will help you hide your IP address and encrypt your communication. If needed, don’t hesitate to contact the police to report cyberstalking or similar crimes.

For more information on cyberstalking and how to prevent it, check out this infographic.

david balabanAbout the Author: David Balaban is a computer security researcher with over 10 years of experience in malware analysis and antivirus software evaluation. David runs the project, which presents expert opinions on contemporary information security matters, including social engineering, penetration testing, threat intelligence, online privacy, and white hat hacking. David has a strong malware troubleshooting background, with the recent focus on ransomware countermeasures.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.