Michael has a Newcastle University Certificate in Cybersecurity and experience in combatting cybercrime.
The Threat of Cyberstalking
Stalking is by definition obsessive and repetitive unwanted attention. It can be mentally and emotionally draining for the victim and this is one of the effects the perpetrator seeks to create.
Statistics show that 54% of individuals have experienced stalking by the time they reach 25 years. 1 in every 6 women and 1 in every 17 men are stalked.
Online stalkers are especially seeking those who are naive or uninformed about the internet. This is evidenced in various ways, including the sites that a person visits and how they share their personal information online.
Cyberstalking is often a crime that takes advantage of trust. In the majority of reported cyberstalking cases, the perpetrator is someone who is known to the victim and with whom the latter has established a degree of trust. This could be someone within one's own circle of friends, family members, neighbors, or coworkers.
It is also important to realize what cyberstalking is not. Someone looking through your social media profile several times a day, or constantly scrolling through your photos, videos, or posts cannot be legally described as a stalker. As long as the information you have is posted publicly, people have the right to check it as many times in a day as they wish.
If you have been a victim of cyberstalking, the following are some insights that can help you deal with the situation.
Inside the Mind of a Cyberstalker
One of the main things that surprises victims is how their stalker is able to able to know so much concerning their personal lives and use the knowledge to track their moves. How for example are they able to show up at unexpected moments in random places?
However, given the interconnectedness of modern living, this should not really come as a surprise. Having a common pool or source of shared information over a long period of time makes a lot of things possible. It is almost like one of the costs we have to pay for the privilege of living in a global village.
A secretive stalker may try to pass off their activities on your social media platform, your home, your workplace, your favorite shopping area, or other places as coincidences, or just looking out for your welfare. In reality, it could be their way of assessing you and your movements.
There is a purpose behind it all. They are not just putting tabs on you to find out where you are at any given time for the sake of it. To combat this vice effectively, therefore, it is necessary to find out as much as possible concerning the end game.
There are different types of stalkers:
- Those who pursue victims because of a breakup may keep chasing long after the relationship is over, or they have been replaced by someone else.
- Those who start off as normal friends (enjoying shared personal experiences) then switch and start using the information they have to stalk or take over the identity of their unsuspecting victim.
- Those who seek to harass others for revenge and personal gratification.
- Those who seek financial or material gain from their victims or individuals associated with the latter.
- Those who are obsessed by a compulsive drive for the victim, especially if they believe this is the person they are meant to spend their lives with.
Many perpetrators stalk because they lack the interpersonal skills required to develop proper relationships. They are acutely aware of this shortcoming. So stalking becomes a gratifying alternative to the task of developing those skills on their own.
Exploiting information to monitor others makes them feel empowered. Hence, even when they know the victim even is not interested, stalkers will still seek after the latter in the hope that they will eventually convince them otherwise.
Further, such a perpetrator may likely be reacting to past traumas. Many cyberstalkers were themselves victims in the past and because they were emotionally wounded, hurting others becomes the way their mind seeks relief, or to even the score.
It is necessary to understand the intent behind your stalker's actions in order to know what approaches or steps should be taken. For example, psychotic stalkers have internal delusions that induce their actions. So simply telling them to leave you alone will not work. There is an internal fantasy playing out which is blocking them from objective reasoning.
if you are convinced there is a cyberstalker on your trail, here are some steps you could start taking immediately.
- Secure your accounts
- Gather information
- Mind your social circle
- Be tactful
- Consolidate your position
- Involve the experts
1. Secure Your Accounts
Depending on the level and scale of the cyberstalking, you may need to turn off the public settings on your social media accounts and maintain private mode at all times.
Go through the information you have posted online and screen it for details that could place you further in danger. As a general rule always limit the number of persons who have access to your posts, especially those who can see your personal details or know your whereabouts.
Continuing to share elements of personal information including photos and videos freely is risky as these can be superimposed or manipulated to create entirely different impressions of your life.
Log off from all your accounts when you are not online. Though it may be convenient to be able to access your accounts whenever you want to, it would also be convenient for the cyberstalker if they have access to those accounts and are using them to monitor your affairs.
You may need to recheck your privacy settings and change all the passwords that all your accounts use. In extreme cases, you may consider deleting all your social media accounts and starting all over with a different profile.
2. Gather Information
Many victims, out of emotional fear or outrage, will seek to immediately erase text messages and every other piece of communication received from a cyberstalker. However, chances are that if the stalker is doing this to you, they may be doing the same to others as well.
Your ability to present an airtight case may not only save you but others as well. Hence, it is essential to arm yourself from the first day with evidence. This includes every comment, every post, every conversation.
Keep a detailed account of what happened, when it happened and who was involved. Anything that could meticulously help you build your case is resourceful.
If the identity of the cyberstalker is unknown, there are some issues to be considered.
- Are there resources available online or offline that could be used to find out more about them?
- Do they have a family that they would rather keep in the dark concerning their activities?
- Do they have an employer or other persons they are accountable to?
Details concerning the perpetrator are invaluable during an investigation and can save a lot of time and resources. Getting to know as much as possible concerning their lives will give you leverage on how to approach the issue and predict their next move.
If the stalking has gone offline, be aware of your surroundings and take note of any unusual changes. Arm yourself with as much detail as possible such that you will be able to create a substantive report to the authorities when the time comes.
As long as it does not endanger your personal safety, try to keep a detailed record of the movements and actions of the stalker. Check for incidents you can record, whether this involves jotting down license plate numbers or taking covert photos with your cell phone.
If they have a habit of contacting you via phone, keep a recorder nearby. If when driving, a car suddenly appears and stays on your trail even when you turn into different streets, don't drive on to your intended destination. Instead, head to the nearest police station and report the incident.
3. Mind Your Social Circle
Sometimes close family members or friends can unwittingly contribute to the aggravation. This is due to the type of information they share publicly.
For example, a parent could be so caught up in the joy of their child's latest achievement (or an event they attended, or an award they've received), they fail to grasp the consequences of publicizing it online. In the spur of the moment, the convenience and interactivity of social media platforms trumps other considerations.
So even if you have taken all the precautions necessary to secure yourself and your data, it only takes one individual to share details about you to place you back in jeopardy. Hence, two questions to ask are:
- How much information concerning your life do others have and how much is being shared?
- Can all these persons be entrusted to handle sensitive information wisely and confidentially?
If you are being cyberstalked, identify individuals who are completely reliable and inform them concerning the situation. Sharing this and the details you have gathered with trusted persons will also help you adjust emotionally and they can become your core support network.
Within this group, you could share secret codes or alerts that can be used when anyone is in immediate danger. Always ensure you have speed-dialing set up on your phone for important numbers.
4. Be Tactful
The first reaction to a cyberstalker is letting them know that what they are doing is having a negative effect and unless they cease, legal action will be taken against them. However, don't do anything that will fuel or stimulate the personal insecurities of the cyberstalker. This could easily exacerbate the situation.
You need to shut down communication especially if you issued the warning and they have not backed down. Choosing not to respond to their further comments or advances discourages their efforts.
Secondly, irrespective of what they say or do, never agree to meet with a cyberstalker in person, unless you are in the company of law enforcement and it is their sting operation. You have no protection if you meet them on their terms and this could just be the end-goal they are working toward.
Thirdly, avoid any actions that encourage the stalker to retaliate. In your effort to alleviate the situation, don't make things worse. For example, there are past cases where issuing a restraining order to a known stalker resulted in even more aggressive behavior. In many instances, it would be wise to use a RO as a last resort.
Trying to get even with a stalker by making threatening comments yourself is counterproductive. Remember the stalker is likely doing this because their inner insecurities are fueling the need to exercise power and control. They will not therefore respond favorably when that sense of power and control is undermined.
Though there are groups of activists whose strategy is to engage in heated exchanges with such persons, this is ill-advised. Remember, when a perpetrator reaches this level, their sense of reality may not necessarily be the same as yours.
5. Consolidate Your Position
If the situation has developed to the point where your privacy has been invaded and your personal safety is at stake, avoid falling victim to the element of surprise. Have a security plan thought through beforehand.
For example, what safety procedures have been implemented to ensure your place of residence is protected? Locks on windows and doors, video surveillance equipment, alarm systems should all be fully functional. As you wait for external intervention from police or other law enforcement agencies, ensure you do your part to keep yourself safe.
There are a number of places where stalkers have been known to source details from including victims' mobile devices and bugging their apartments or vehicles. it is not unusual for victims to go to the authorities, only to find out after investigation that they themselves were carrying tracking devices in their person or in what they owned.
It is also helpful to reflect and ask yourself whether there are situations that happened prior to the stalking that could have been door-openers. Can you identify a specific incident that could have given the perpetrator access to your personal life? For example, if you previously shared your wifi password with someone (a friend, flatmate, or neighbor, etc.), do they still retain the password?
Remember, the power that cyberstalkers use is information. This is also another reason why it is never a good idea to post too much personal details online. Once your data is out there, it can no longer be 'unshared'.
A simple Google search of your name or other personal details can give you a picture of the amount of information about you that is currently out there. This is the data that can be used to compile a profile of your identity.
Each time you go online, cast aside the common naivety that assumes everyone else in cyberspace has respect, decency, and sensitivity. Take charge of your digital footprint and ensure there is no information out there that can be maliciously used against you. Whenever you are on a trip or visiting places, ensure that you only share photos, videos, and comments after the trip is over and you have returned home safely.
Remember that a mobile phone can have geo-tracking enabled and when this information gets into the wrong hands, it can be used to locate you. Consider the electronic devices you have. Are there any that could be potentially giving away information about you or your whereabouts to third parties?
6. Involve the Experts
Going through a few reported cases of cyberstalking is all it takes for one to realize the life-changing depths into which a victim can be cast. However, if the consequences of stalking are so serious, why is it sometimes so difficult to get the intervention of law enforcement?
Unlike other forms of crime (like physical assaults, robbery, or damage to assets) that can be clearly proven and quantified, it is virtually impossible to evidence a crime when the damage is internal. How do you prosecute injury when it is emotional or psychological?
This is why authorities sometimes inform victims that there is nothing they can do since no criminal offense has been committed, yet. There is no tangible proof of an illegal act having taken place
Another challenge is that technology has been evolving so fast that policies have not always been able to keep up. While it takes time for bills to be passed into law, technology is advancing far more rapidly. This means there are increasingly new ways of performing criminal activities than there are regulations and measures to curb them.
Still, due to the proliferation of cyberstalking especially in recent years, police departments have been taking an increasingly more proactive approach. Therefore you should not allow anything to discourage you from seeking the assistance and cooperation of law enforcement.
Many victims tend to assume that the popular social media platforms they are using like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram will swiftly come to their aid when something like this happens to them. However, it is important to remember that these are commercial entities.
They are profit-driven and so each post or comment that appears on their sites is seen by them as a potential business opportunity. It explains why they may not be as keen when it comes to investigating or countering threats to one's person issued through the use of their technology.
You therefore need to take personal responsibility. Seek legal counsel and research on what avenues are available in your jurisdiction for you to combat the situation. Is there a local number or hotline dedicated specifically to stalked victims that you can call?
Fortunately, you may not need to spend a fortune to know what your legal options are as there are practitioners who can offer you free guidance and counseling. Don't feel constrained from seeking the services of a stalking expert.