THE BLOG

How to Handle Email Harassment

07/23/2014 11:45 am ET | Updated Sep 20, 2014

Recently I was the target of email harassment, also known as cyberbullying. I was tangled up in business with someone who seemed sane. Then I discovered that this person had impersonated me online, buying a gift from an online vendor and signing my name and personal email address.

Soon thereafter, I made a decision the person did not like. When I stood my ground, the person first was conciliatory, and then suddenly, the switch flipped. Over the course of a few hours, Mr. Hyde emerged.

This person sent dozens of violent, offensive emails that included threats of bodily harm, like promising to fight me until "blood trips" [sic]. There were other vulgar threats, and even an oblique reference to the mutilation of female genitalia.

The emails, which were sent to a few of my email addresses, were increasingly poorly spelled and were filled with the foulest language imaginable. They included manic threats of various sorts. The diction was completely out-of-bounds. I was called the "c" word repeatedly, even in the subject line of the emails--where the person dared me to post the emails publicly, on my blog.

One of the emails, demanding a large sum of money to be sent within 24 hours, was also sent to my husband.

In the course of this mad ranting, the person claimed to have phoned a longtime friend of mine, and he'd given up some dirt on me. When I forwarded the email, my friend responded, "Contrary to what was written, I have never spoken to the person and never heard of them until today..."

Another threatening email purported to be from an attorney admitted to the bar in a different state than the sender, and the attorney's name and legal credentials were signed. When my attorney sent cease and desist letters, the other attorney said that the email was written without his knowledge or consent.

Know what constitutes harassment. These caustic and deranged emails weren't spam and they weren't a simple disagreement. Early on, I sent an email saying, "Kindly refrain from sending me offensive and threatening emails which are not going to help resolve this situation."

The emails continued. And these 30+ emails were clearly sent with the purpose of intimidating and frightening me. The harasser intended to cause me emotional distress.

Indeed, it was a shocking and awful experience. As I spoke with friends about it, I discovered that I wasn't alone. One woman told of similar vitriolic emails coming into her inbox in the middle of the night, and how she seethed with anger. I felt outrage and disgust. I looked for ways to deal with it constructively.

The first thing any email harassment victim should know is that if there is a physical threat, report it to local law enforcement. Anyone who thinks their life is in immediate danger should call 911.

Next, as with any crime, the target of email harassment should save all evidence of abuse, taking screen shots, printing out emails, and making note of links to websites. I set up filters in my email accounts and directed all emails from the sender into a separate email account so I didn't have to see these insane messages in my inbox.

Also, don't engage with the abuser beyond a clear, firm request for the abuser to cease and desist. Save the evidence that this request was sent. Often the sick person wants attention and wants to drag you down into engaging at their level. Don't be sucked in. Chances are good that they've bullied other people.

I made contact with Haltabuse.org, an online site that provides free help for harassment victims. Peter Kurata, the kindly case worker assigned to help me, wrote, "The cease and desist is next not only to document your disapproval, but to show non-compliance by the abuser. Whether in email or on a website, reply or post a message to remove the offending material, and save evidence."

Most email services and social media sites have a way to report abuse. For example, email harassment is a violation of Gmail policy, and Google has a specific page for reporting a Gmail user who engages in abusive emails.

You need to copy the email header from the sample email reported to Google, and that process is explained on the Google page. A response from Google may take some time.

Sometimes an attorney is necessary when an email can't be traced to the source, and a subpoena is necessary for gathering supporting evidence.

Mr. Kurata contacted the online vendor, from whom I still receive emails, but since the harasser used their own credit card, there was nothing to be done. He recounted that Jayne Hitchcock, the founder of Haltabuse.org, had a rough journey of her own as the victim of cyberstalking. It gave her a passion for helping others.

"Everyone at Haltabuse.org is a volunteer. No one gets paid and we do whatever we can with a skeleton staff," Mr. Kurata said. The website says they receive 50-75 cases per week. I was one of their cases one week in June, and I was lucky to have found them. They genuinely try to help people who have been subject to email harassment.