Over the past few decades, our lives have become increasingly digitized. We do more things online than ever before: date, bank, shop, work, socialize, entertain ourselves. We are living in the Age of Convenience, which is both a cause of celebration, and a recipe for increased vulnerability. The shift to living virtually has happened so quickly and so pervasively, that we have hardly had time to adjust to all the implications. Just like every other sphere of life, crime too has gone online. And we are very poorly prepared. In the old days, you might be mugged face to face in an alley, or followed by a creep in a trench coat. Today you are more likely to be a victim of cyberstalking, identity theft, or online harassment. The numbers are astonishing. As many as 1 million women and nearly 400,000 men are stalked each year in the United States. Moreover, California has the highest number of cyberstalking victims and has maintained this record for over a decade. Half of victims also tend to be younger adults under 25.
Cyberstalking is a compulsion. It aims to humiliate, control, frighten, manipulate, embarrass, get revenge at, or otherwise harm the victim. Many cyberstalkers are obsessed, unstable or otherwise mentally ill. Still others are simply angry or hurt and have crossed the line into criminal activity when expressing these emotions. While they can exhibit charm and eloquence, they are generally isolated and desperate, have very low self-esteem, and are especially sensitive to rejection. The financial ruin of the victim can also be part of their goal. Where some of us may poke our nose into Facebook a little too often, or fanatically follow a celebrity online, a cyberstalker will go further by repeatedly sending unwanted anonymous messages, threats or comments, and will continue doing these things despite repeated requests and warnings to stop.
Although in previous years stalkers tended to be ex-lovers, spouses, acquaintances or other known individuals to the victim, today cyberstalkers can be either known or unknown. They can target their victims via social media, dating websites, blogs or by hacking into phones or personal computers where most of us store highly personal information without any security in place. Worst of all, cyberstalking can lead to escalation and does so in over 70 percent of cases. This can result in physical attacks and abductions, especially as perpetrators of domestic violence are more easily able to locate victims online who may be in hiding.
Because stalking in some perpetrators can be a form of addiction, it will not get better without treatment. The predator must acknowledge they have a problem and seek therapy and a significant amount of support. Usually this doesn't happen until something very negative has occurred, like the person is arrested or loses their job, friends and family. Since it's thus unlikely that you will be able to 'reason' with a cyberstalker, or in some cases even be aware you are a target, here are some basic methods of protecting yourself:
- Use anonymous emails (like Hotmail and Yahoo) to post online or for most communication, keeping your main account private or shared only with people you know very well. Be especially cautious on public computers.
- Be very vague in your online profiles. Never disclose your exact location, travel plans, children's names, birthday, phone number or other important personal information. Remember that 1 in 5 cyberstalking victims have been targeted through social media sites. To be safe, don't friend people you have not met in person.
- Change passwords often. This includes for debit cards, email, phone, social media accounts and even voicemail. Think of it as something you need to do on a regular basis like take out the trash or clean out your closet.
- Always takes threats seriously. Report them, document them and address them.
- Always delete personal info and photos from phones and computers before selling them.