Cyberstalking refers to the crime of using the Internet, email, or other types of electronic communications to stalk, harass, or threaten another person. Cyberstalking most often involves sending harassing emails, instant or text messages, or social media posts, or creating websites for the sole purpose of tormenting the victim. To explore this concept, consider the following cyberstalking definition.
Definition of Cyberstalking
- The use of electronic communications to persistently harass someone.
Early 21st century Americanism
What is Cyberstalking
Cyberstalking involves using electronic means, including the Internet, to stalk or harass a person or group of people. Cyberstalking can include many things including threats, solicitation for sex, false accusations, defamation, slander, libel, identity theft, and vandalism. Cyberstalking is often used in conjunction with offline stalking, as both are an expression of a desire to control, intimidate, or manipulate a victim. A cyberstalker may be someone the victim is familiar with, or a complete stranger, and is a criminal offense.
Laws governing stalking, harassment, and slander, as well as specific “cyberstalking” laws, vary by state, and might include a series of acts that might not be considered illegal under other circumstances. Stalking is a form of emotional assault, and cyberstalking, also referred to as “cyberbullying,” is a high-tech method of inflicting more pain.
The Violence Against Women Act of 2000 placed cyberstalking under the prevue of federal law in the U.S. While many people find cyberstalking laws to be inadequate, state and federal legislatures point out that cyberstalking laws are fairly new and, as technology continues to grow and improve, so do the laws. Although specific laws vary, cyberstalking laws make it clear that this type of harassment is a criminal offense. A conviction for cyberstalking may result in a restraining order being issued, imprisonment, probation, fines, and restitution.
Forms of Cyberstalking
Cyberstalking cases differ from regular stalking in that it is technologically based, though some cyberstalkers escalate their harassment to include physical stalking as well. A cyberstalker acts of out of anger, or a need to control, or gain revenge over another person through threats, fear, and intimidation. There are several forms of cyberstalking, including:
- Harassing the victim
- Embarrassing and humiliating the victim
- Exerting financial control by emptying the victim’s bank accounts, or by ruining his credit
- Isolating the victim by harassing his family, friends, and employer
- Frightening the victim by using scare tactics and threats
It is sometimes difficult for a person who is being harassed or stalked to realize the situation is a criminal act that should be reported to the authorities. In deciding whether a situation is truly stalking, the victim should consider whether the perpetrator is acting with malice and premeditation. Stalking activities are often a repetitive, obsession-based vendetta, directed personally at the victim. This behavior continues even when the victim has personally warned the perpetrator to stop.
Key factors to identifying cyberstalking cases include:
- False accusations. A cyberstalker often tries to damage the reputation of his victim by posting false information on social media websites or blogs. A perpetrator may even create fictitious websites or other accounts for the purpose of spreading false rumors and allegations about the victim.
- Gathering information about the victim. A cyberstalker may try to gather as much information as possible about the victim by interacting with the victim’s friends, family, and colleagues. In serious cases, a cyberstalker may hire a private investigator.
- Monitoring victim’s activities. A cyberstalker may attempt to trace his victim’s IP address, or hack into the victim’s social media accounts and emails to learn about his online activities.
- Encouraging others to harass the victim. The offender may encourage the involvement of third parties to harass the victim.
- False victimization. It is not uncommon for a cyberstalker to claim the victim is harassing him, taking the position of victim in his own mind.
Protecting Yourself Against Cyberstalking
The U.S. Department of Justice has issued recommendations for people who believe they are victims of cyberstalking. The first step should be to demand the stalker to stop all contact, and stop the harassing actions. Additionally, in order to facilitate prosecution of the perpetrator, the victim should:
- Save all emails, messages, and other communications for evidence. It is vital that these are not altered in any way, and that the electronic copies are kept, rather than only printouts.
- Save all records of threats against the victim’s safety or life. This includes any written or recorded threats, and logs of the date, time, and circumstances of verbal threats.
- Contact the perpetrator’s internet service provider. Internet service providers (ISP) prohibit their users from using their service to harass others. Contacting the ISP may result in discontinuation of the harasser’s internet service, and will put the ISP on notice to maintain record of the harasser’s internet use.
- Keep detailed records of contact with ISP and law enforcement officials. It is important to keep a log of all reports made to any agency or provider, and to obtain copies of the official reports when available.
Examples of Cyberstalking
- A woman contacted police in 2003, claiming someone had given her private information, including her location and her description, to men through a dating service. The woman discovered the act when she was contacted by two different men, each of whom stated they had previously talked with her, and arranged a personal encounter.
- Claire began being harassed by strangers after someone made a post on the Internet offering sexual services in her name. The post included private information, including her phone number and home address.
- After John and his girlfriend broke up, he began stalking her by planting a prepaid GPS-enabled cell phone under her car. John tracked his ex-girlfriend’s movements, and followed her by logging into the cell phone account online. John also called his ex upwards of 200 times a day.
Cyberstalking and Production of Child Pornography
On January 23, 2013, James S. Allen of Baltimore, Michigan was indicted by a federal grand jury on 18 counts of cyberstalking, and 5 counts of production of child pornography. Between April and August of 2012, the defendant used the Internet and his cell phone to stalk 18 female victims in New York, some of whom were minors at the time of the abuse. Allen threatened the victims by telling them he had found nude pictures of them on the Internet, and told them where to find the photos. The website he sent the victims to was actually a phishing site, where he sought to obtain the victims’ email addresses and passwords, allowing him to take control of their email accounts.
In addition, Allen threatened his victims with publication of their photos if they did not have a Skype chat session with him. Once the victims entered into the chat Skype, Allen demanded they take their clothing off and engage in sexual acts. If they refused, he would distribute the nude photos. One by one the girls contacted police. Because some of the girls were minors, Allen faces child pornography charges in addition to cyberstalking charges.
Cyberbullying and Text Threats
From 2012 to 2013, Republican activist Adam Savader hacked online accounts belonging to 15 women, to obtain nude photos of them. He was charged with cyberstalking of these mostly college age victims who he knew personally from school and work. Savader threatened to send the nude photos to the victims’ friends and family unless they cooperated in sending him more photos. In one text, Savader threatened, “Let’s make this simple. … You have until noon. I am not bluffing. Don’t be stupid. Once I send pics of you they cannot be unsent.” Although Savader apologized publicly when he was charged, the judge said he knew right from wrong, and sentenced him to 30 months in prison.
As people begin to rely more and more on technology, the incidence of cyberstalking increase. Law enforcement and government agencies continue to study the crime in order to learn how to better deter criminals from engaging in this crime of control, fear, and intimidation. The national advocacy group Survivors in Action admit that cyberstalking statistics are often difficult to come by, as a great deal of this activity goes unreported.
- The majority of cyberstalking victims are between 18 and 29 years of age.
- Roughly 56 percent of cyberstalkers are male
- Women make up 60 percent of victims
- In over 70 percent of cyberstalking cases, the victim and perpetrator live in different states
- Nearly 50 percent of cyberstalkers are the victim’s ex, and 15 percent are an online acquaintance of the victim
- More than 30 percent of cyberstalking attacks begin on Facebook, or through email
- Over half of cyberstalking victims are single, and 31 percent are married
- Caucasian people are 10 times more likely to be targeted for cyberstalking than people of other ethnicities
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Defamation – An intentional false statement that harms a person’s reputation, or which decreases the respect or regard in which a person is held.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
- Stalking – The act of pursuing game, prey, or a person by stealth; the act of harassing an individual in an aggressive, threatening, or illegal manner.
- Trial — A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.