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What Is Cyberstalking?

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Updated February 27, 2012

Question: What Is Cyberstalking?
I've been getting strange email messages from someone who seems to know a lot about me. I have deleted them and blocked the sender, but the emails just come from a different email address the next day. Someone told me I was the victim of a cyberstalker. What is cyberstalking and what can be done about it?
Answer:

Cyberstalking is considered the most serious type of online harassment, worse than cyberbullying or cyberharassment.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, cyberstalking is "the use of the Internet, email or other electronic communications to stalk, and generally refers to a pattern of threatening or malicious behaviors. Cyberstalking may be considered the most dangerous of the three types of Internet harassment, based on posing a credible threat of harm."

Threatening or malicious behaviors are difficult to define. But when it comes to stalking, typically the harassing or threatening behavior would happen repeatedly, so that a pattern of harassment emerges over time.

With in-person stalking, behaviors such as following a person, appearing at a person's home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person's property would be included. With cyberstalking, you may never actually meet or even see the stalker. Instead, you may receive emails or text messages of a personal or threatening nature from someone you do not know. You may receive "sexts" or you may discover that someone has found out personal information about you through public or private Internet records.

Cyberstalking can also involve the cyberstalker or others drawn into the act impersonating the victim and performing online activities in the victim's name. This can include posting inflammatory messages to online bulletin boards and in chat rooms, thereby causing viewers of that message to send back threatening messages to the victim "author." It can also involve sending email messages on their behalf, hacking into their address book or Facebook account, or creating websites apparently by or about the victim.

Why Do People Cyberstalk Others?

Cyberstalking can happen for a whole host of reasons. Sometimes, it is a consequence of Internet addiction, and the cyberstalker's ability to form normal, healthy relationships has been compromised. Sometimes, it is the unfortunate aftermath of a real, imagined or thwarted relationship. And sometimes, it is the result of a delusion, for example, if the cyberstalker incorrectly believes that the victim is in love with them - although in reality, they may never have met. Celebrities, with their widespread fame, enormous fan base and airbrushed good looks, are particularly vulnerable to stalkers and cyberstalkers.

What to Do if You Are Being Cyberstalked

Cyberstalking is well recognized in federal and state laws. As early as 1999, cyberstalking was recognized as a significant threat posed by the Internet; at that time, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was quoted as saying, "Make no mistake: this kind of harassment can be as frightening and as real as being followed and watched in your neighborhood or in your home." At the time of this writing, at least 34 states have laws against cyberstalking, with sanctions ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.

By law, there would typically be a credible or implied threat of violence against the victim or immediate family. Harassment without a credible threat of violence would generally be considered cyberharassment, which, although also precluded by law in many states, is a lesser offense. And although some annoying or menacing behaviors might fall short of illegal stalking, they may be a prelude to stalking and violence, and are typically treated seriously.

As there is so much variation across jurisdictions, it is impossible to say what would happen in your personal circumstance. But you should be taken seriously if you report it to the police anywhere, so this is your best course of action. Be sure to keep detailed records of what the cyberstalking involved.

What to Do if You Are a Cyberstalker

Obviously, if you are cyberstalking others, you are breaking the law and are likely causing unnecessary distress to your victim(s). The consequences could be very severe if you continue. If you have been told by someone you believe is in love with you to leave them alone, or if you believe you are being contacted by the secret service, FBI or some other organization to follow someone, you may be suffering from a delusion - which can be the result of alcohol or drug use or a treatable symptom of a mental illness. In this case, see your doctor as soon as possible and try the treatments they suggest. You could save yourself and others a lot of heartache and stress.

Sources

1999 Report on Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry. A Report from the Attorney General to the Vice President. August 1999.

National Conference of State Legislatures. State Cyberstalking, Cyberharassment and Cyberbullying Laws. Last update: January 26, 2011.

Young, K. and Nabuco del Abreu, C. Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment. New York: Wiley. 2011.

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