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 very small 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.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Isn’t it illegal?
I need to remind you that I am neither a lawyer nor a law enforcement professional. I cannot give legal advice, and none of this should be taken as such.
One problem here is that the answer to this question varies from location to location. Some activities are illegal in some jurisdictions and acceptable in others. The only way to know which laws apply to your situation is to contact an attorney or local law enforcement. (You’ll find this to be a common refrain throughout this article.)
There are, however, a couple of interesting generalizations or examples that might be instructive.
Sexual exploitation of children is pretty clear. While the definition of “exploitation” may be unclear in some cases, and the legal definition of “child” may vary, authorities are typically clear on its illegality.
At the other end of the spectrum, simple password theft might not be illegal. Accessing your account and reading your email without your permission might be perfectly legal. Most would consider it wrong, 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.
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 who are being harassed or threatened anonymously want to find out who’s doing it.
The most common specific question I get relates to IP addresses. People believe that once they have an IP address they can identify the individual.
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 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 anything, but it can build a case you can take to the proper authorities.
You cannot definitively trace the source of email or any other internet connection unless the offender has slipped up and made it obvious in non-technical ways. But if a law has been broken, then law enforcement may be able to. 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 nine 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. Detective Wilson’s case likely involved a crime against a child, as that’s her specialty. That’s a priority, and certainly justifies the time and effort to locate the criminal and prosecute the crime.
Someone just hacking into your email account? That’s just not as important. To quote Detective 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 …”
The abilities and the resources available to your local law enforcement dictate what’s possible, and what’s reasonable to expect, when it comes to tracking down your offender.
How do I make them stop?
If you believe a crime may have been committed, contact your local law enforcement.
If the offender is in school, using school resources, the school may have additional options. Certain forms of harassment may not be illegal, but they may be against school rules and regulations. The school may be able to take action on your behalf, and likely have a better picture of what warrants involving law enforcement.
In lieu of support from law enforcement or other authorities, your options are 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 to it, create a new account and let your contacts know to ignore the old one.
- If you’re getting harassing chat messages, close the account and begin a new one.
Yes, all of these are the cyber-equivalent of changing your phone number to an unlisted one, or even moving to avoid harassment. As in the real-world examples, make sure only people you trust have your new information.
And yes, to put it bluntly, it sucks.
But the fact is, also like the real world, unless some 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 a common question. People feel they have been violated, and want to get revenge.
Consider this fact: How do I hack into someone’s account? is one of my most visited Ask Leo! articles. 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. Many of the comments on that article, including most of the comments you don’t see because they are themselves abusive and have been removed, would seem to bear this out.
Bypassing the authorities and attempting to exact revenge can only do more harm than good, and rarely resolves anything.
At best, you’ll only waste time. More likely, you’ll 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 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 latter 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 individual 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, 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 serious damage before the account misuse is detected.
- Don’t publish personal information publicly. Google yourself: you may be amazed at what you find. Don’t publish information publicly in newsgroups, public forums, social networking sites, and other places 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. On the internet, it’s trivially easy to appear to be something or someone you’re not. Only once you’ve actually met them, or perhaps when someone else you know (i.e. someone you’ve met) has met them face to face, can you assume you know who you’re talking to.
- 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 to drive and the rules of the road. The same is true for the internet. Take the time to learn about your computer, the internet, and the sites and services that you use most often. It’s 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 good 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.
- Use the CyberTipLine on the web (or at 800-843-5678 in the US) to report or learn more about preventing sexual exploitation of children. (Also includes a link to U.K. based resources.)
- Your local ISP — I know 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.
- ScamBusters.org: 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, about the opportunities available, and about your computer, its software, and its abilities.
Then pass what you’ve learned on to others.
If you found this article helpful you'll love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and increase your confidence with technology.
Subscribe now, and I'll see you there soon,