Cyberstalking Laws: How to Protect Yourself
Since the internet became available to the general public in the mid-1990s, it has revolutionized human life. From communications and research to socializing and entertainment, the internet is central to many of our lives.
Unfortunately, it has also revolutionized crime. Cyberstalking didn't exist pre-internet, but in 2019, it was estimated that more than 2.7 million Americans experienced some form of stalking with technology. That high number makes it important to understand how to protect yourself from cyberstalking.
Cyberstalking is defined as harassment and intimidation using the internet or technology. It can include classic stalking behavior, such as tracking a person's location and monitoring their activities. However, it also covers online-specific behavior, including:
- Hacking accounts
- Targeting on social media
- Posting revenge porn or fake photographs
- Communicating with friends, family or employers
- Sending threatening emails or private messages
The motives of cyberstalking are control, anger or revenge, and the behavior is intended to intimidate the target. This contrasts with the financial motives of a cybercrime, such as identity theft. Around 54% of victims who experienced cyberstalking knew their stalker. Of those who experienced both traditional stalking and cyberstalking, almost 81% knew their stalker.
Sometimes, people dismiss unwanted behavior on the internet. It can be easy to believe it's "just online" or that if you ignore it, the person will go away. Concrete examples can help you determine whether you're being cyberstalked. Examples of a cyberstalker's behavior include:
- Sending unwanted, frightening or obscene messages through electronic means, such as emails, text messages or social media
- Harassing or threatening you on social media
- Tracking your computer and internet use using spyware
- Using technology, such as GPS, to track you
A common piece of advice for people on the internet is not to read the comments, because comment sections tend to be full of negative, vulgar or offensive statements. Given this, how can you tell when mean comments rise to the level of cyberstalking, and when does it become a crime?
In general, cyberstalking is covered under the same laws as traditional stalking. To be considered criminal, the cyberstalker has to be threatening, harassing or intimidating the victim. A one-off mean comment isn't cyberstalking; however, ongoing mean comments may be a criminal offense. This is especially true if the cyberstalker follows you to other platforms or makes new accounts to continue harassing you after you've blocked them.
Cyberstalking is a federal offense that falls under the Violence Against Women Act. In 2005, stalking was added to this act, and in 2013, it was amended to include stalking by internet and telephone. It also doesn't require that the cyberstalker and their victim live in different jurisdictions. There are state laws that govern stalking and cyberstalking, but you can go to the FBI for federal help if needed.
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If you've been the target of cyberstalking, keep a record of the incidents. Write down details such as the date, time and exactly what happened, and save screenshots of any threatening messages. This will make it easier for law enforcement to build a case.
Start by reporting the crime to the local police. An official complaint can make it easier to get a restraining order against your stalker. In the past, victims have complained about law enforcement not understanding the seriousness of online stalking — however, most jurisdictions now accept the severe impact this crime has on victims. If you have trouble getting assistance from local police or your stalker is in another state, you can contact your local FBI office.
Don't forget to also report the person's actions to the relevant internet sites. Most social media platforms allow you to report a post, comment or message. Google also has a reporting mechanism for messages coming from Gmail or its other platforms. This doesn't help a criminal case but may give you some relief from the abuse.
Cyberstalking can have a serious impact on victims. Although some may only feel annoyance or embarrassment, research has found that many experience consequences, including:
- Suicidal ideation
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
If you've experienced cyberstalking, seeking help from a mental health professional may help you manage these consequences.
Thankfully, as authorities have come to understand the violent nature of cyberstalking, perpetrators are also experiencing serious consequences. Federally, cyberstalking is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. If the cyberstalker's actions lead to the death of the victim, they may receive a life sentence.
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