Online harassment is common problem, and exceptionally prevalent among children. We'll review some of the issues and steps to be taken.
Normally, this is where I’d quote the original question.
This topic appears in so many different guises and in so many different ways that quoting a single question would represent only a slice of a much larger issue.
Call it what you will, cyber-bullying or online harassment is a frighteningly common occurrence. Those most at risk appear to be children and individuals who’ve been in abusive domestic relationships.
The questions I get most often are:
- Isn’t it illegal?
- How do I find out who’s responsible?
- How do I make them stop?
- How can I get back at them?
I’ll tackle each one of those, and a couple more.
Isn’t it illegal?
As you might expect, I need to include this caveat: I am not a lawyer, and I am not a law enforcement professional. I cannot give out legal advice and none of this should be taken as such.
One problem here is that the answer to this question will vary from location to location. Some activities are illegal in some jurisdictions, and quite alright in others. The only way you’ll know for certain which laws apply to your situation is to contact an attorney or your local law enforcement with your specific scenario. (You’ll find that to be a common refrain throughout this article.)
Having said that, there are a couple of interesting generalizations or examples that might be instructive.
Sexual exploitation of children is typically pretty clear. While definitions might get unclear in edge cases of what is or is not exploitation, and the definition of “child” might have a legal definition that varies from locale to locale, authorities are typically pretty clear on its illegality (not to mention a few other choice adjectives).
As an example at the other end of the spectrum, password theft may not be illegal. Accessing your account and reading your email without your permission might be perfectly legal. Most people would consider it “wrong”, and it may be rude, offensive and perhaps immoral, but depending on your local laws it might not be an illegal offense.
What they do once they have your password also may or may not be illegal. For example hacking into your account to threaten people in your address book might be illegal, but simply annoying people in your address book may not be.
You can see that it’s a large, grey area. Unless things are very obviously illegal, like sexual predation, you may not be able to assume what is, or is not, a violation of your local laws. You’ll need to ask a local authority.
How do I find out who’s responsible?
This is perhaps the most common harassment-related question I get. People are being harassed or even threatened anonymously, and they want to find out who’s doing it.
The most common specific question I get on this topic relates to IP addresses. People believe that once they have one they can identify the individual at that IP.
It’s nowhere near that simple.
Working on your own, your best bet is to look for all the clues relating to the situation. Sure, perhaps an IP address matches an IP address in an email you got from someone you know. That’s no guarantee that it’s the same person. But it’s a clue; and so are things like who might have a problem with you in real the world, who’s been causing you grief at work or in school, or who you’ve just broken up with.
None of that can prove much of anything, but it can build a case that … you guessed it … you can then take to the authorities.
You cannot definitively trace the source of email or other internet connections unless the offender has slipped up and made it obvious in non-technical ways. But if a law has been broken then law enforcement can. Some time ago I spoke to Detective Malinda Wilson of the Seattle Police department and the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, who indicated that she had served as many as 9 different warrants to follow the trail of one of her suspects.
This brings us to another point: police may not always be able to help. Det. Wilson’s case likely involved a crime against a child, as is her specialty. That’s a priority, and certainly justifies a lot of time and effort to locate the criminal and prosecute the crime.
Someone just hacking into your email account? That’s probably not as important. To quote Det. Wilson, “Often if no crime other than the ‘hacking’ is done, the best advice is going to be to start over with a new account …”
Again, the abilities and the resources available to your local law enforcement will dictate both what’s possible, and what’s reasonable to expect when it comes to tracking down your offender.
One additional possibility: if this is happening to a child in school, contact the school. It’s possible that if school resources were used that the school may be able to help trace the offender, or at least provide additional clues for law enforcement’s use.
How do I make them stop?
If you believe that a crime may have been committed, then by all means contact your local law enforcement.
If the offender is in school, and particularly if he or she is using school resources to harass, the school may have additional options for dealing with the situation. As I discussed above, certain types of harassment are not necessarily illegal, but they may well be against school rules and regulations. The school may be able to take action on your behalf, and they’ll likely have a better picture of what warrants involving law enforcement.
In lieu of support from law enforcement or other authorities, your options are actually very limited. Some ideas include:
- If you’re receiving harassing email on a particular email address, close that account and get a new one.
- If your email account has been stolen and you no longer have access, create a new account and let your contacts know to ignore the old.
- If you’re getting harassing IM or chat messages, close the account and begin using a new one.
Yes, all of these are the cyber-equivalent of changing your phone number (to an unlisted one, I might add), or even moving to avoid harassment. And as in the real world case, make sure that only people you trust have your new information.
And yes, to put it bluntly, it sucks.
But the fact is that, also like the real world, unless some other law has been broken it’s not illegal to be an annoying pain in the … neck.
How can I get back at them?
This, too, is an all too common question. People feel that they have been violated by someone else, and want to get revenge. Consider this fact: How do I hack into someone’s account? is one of my most visited articles here on Ask Leo!. My theory is that it’s mostly children attempting to figure out how to get revenge on someone who’s somehow bullied or harassed them, online or off.
Bypassing the authorities and attempting to exact revenge can only do more harm than good. And it rarely resolves anything.
At best you’ll only waste time. More likely you’ll simply antagonize your target into taking harsher actions themselves. In the worst case, you might find yourself in violation of the law and as a result may face harsher penalties than the person harassing you.
Don’t do it. Don’t even try. It’s simply not worth it.
Involve the authorities – law enforcement, school officials, ISPs - if you can, and let them do their jobs. If they can’t help, then it’s by far safest to simply let it go.
How do I prevent all this in the first place?
Frequently this is asked in the context of parents wanting to keep their children safe. But most of the rules apply to us all.
- Be the parent – this is by far the toughest, but it means understanding what’s appropriate for your children, and understanding – perhaps even monitoring – what they’re doing online. It means setting rules with consequences and sticking to them, and taking care to make sure your children understand what it means to be safe on the internet.
- Be realistic – children are more likely to be affected by what I’d call “peer-to-peer bullying” than they are to be approached by an adult for illicit purposes. That does not mean that sexual predation does not happen – it clearly does. But what’s much more likely is that your child will be bullied by another child. Don’t ignore the later because the former is so much more heinous and gets more press.
- Choose strong passwords – yes, strong passwords are hard to remember, but that’s what makes them strong. The easier they are to remember, the easier they are to guess. Most account theft is simply someone guessing your password with no special technology or techniques necessary.
- Don’t share your password with anyone - the one exception is that children should be required to share their passwords with their responsible parent(s). The scenario I see repeated over and over again, with both children and adults is this: someone shares an account password with a trusted friend, and sometime later the friendship ends. It’s not infrequent that the former friend does some serious damage before the account miss-use is detected.
- Don’t publish personal information publicly - Google yourself and you’ll be amazed at what you might find. Don’t publish information publicly in newsgroups, public forums, social networking sites and other places that anyone can see. Even the smallest bit of personal information here and there can be used by a savvy stalker. Assume your worst enemy is trying to find you, and every little piece of information you leave online is helping them.
- Don’t assume you know someone you’ve never actually met – there’s nothing that says someone is who they say they are. Only once you’ve actually met them, or perhaps when someone else you know (i.e. someone you’ve met) has in fact actually met them face to face can you start to assume you know who you’re talking to. On the internet it’s trivially easy to appear to be something or someone you’re not.
- Learn the technology – you don’t have to know how a car’s engine works to drive safely, but you do have to know how a car works and what the rules of the road are. The same is true for the internet. Take the time to learn about your computer, the internet, the sites and services that you use most often. It’s very, very simple: the better educated you are about these things, the safer you’ll know to be.
Where can I get help?
I attended a presentation on internet safety for children, which is where I met Det. Wilson. The presentation covered some of what I’ve mentioned here, and a lot more. If you have the opportunity to attend something similar in your area, I would strongly recommend it as a starting point.
Remember, the rules and cautions apply to everyone, not just children. Adults can learn a lot about the potential risks and the often simple steps to remain safe even by attending a presentation aimed at keeping kids safe. If nothing else, it’s a safe place to ask questions, and you’ll get references to the local agencies and support organizations that can help you learn more or deal with any immediate issues.
- Local Law Enforcement – your first place to turn if you believe a crime has been committed.
- The CyberTipLine on the web or in the US at 800-843-5678 to report or learn more about preventing sexual exploitation of children. (Also includes a link to U.K. based resources as well.)
- Your local ISP – I know that this can be spotty depending on the service you use or the scenario involved, but your ISP can frequently be a source not only for action, but more frequently for guidance on where to go next.
- Online Resources like NetSmartz.org from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, GetNetWise.com a public educational service for everyone to stay safe online.
- ScamBusters.org – I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my friends Jim and Audri Lanford, who’ve been running ScamBusters since 1994. It’s a great resource to learn about avoiding scams, identity theft, urban legends and much, much more.
The internet is a wonderful, wonderful place. I truly believe it is. It’s opened doors and made so much information and opportunity available to individuals planet-wide that I can’t imagine a world without it.
But it also opens up doors of opportunity for the darker elements in society. Like any tool, it becomes our responsibility to use it wisely, protecting our loved ones and ourselves.
The key is simple: education. Learn about the tools, learn about the opportunities available, learn about your computer, its software and its abilities.
Then pass what you’ve learned on to others.