Online harassment is rampant. Here’s what you need to know.
Normally, this is where I’d quote the original question.
But this topic appears in so many different guises and in so many different ways that quoting a single question would represent only a small slice of a much larger issue.
Cyber-bullying, or online harassment, is a frighteningly common occurrence. Those most at risk appear to be children and individuals who have been in abusive domestic relationships, but it can happen to anyone.
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?
Let’s tackle each of those and a couple more.
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Online harassment & bullying
Unfortunately, varying degrees of online harassment may or may not be illegal, depending on the laws in your area. While it’s tempting to want to find the harassers, force them to stop, and even get revenge, the thing to do in all cases is to contact local law enforcement or other appropriate authorities for assistance. Sadly, not all authorities have the resources to respond, and not all harassment rises to a level warranting their involvement.
Isn’t it illegal?
I need to remind you that I am neither a lawyer nor law enforcement professional. I cannot give legal advice, and none of this should be taken as such.
One problem with this question is that the answer varies — sometimes dramatically — 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 your local law enforcement. (You’ll find this to be a common refrain throughout this article.)
There are, however, a couple of 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 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. 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 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 an email (or any other internet connection) unless the offender slipped up and made it obvious in non-technical ways. But if a law has been broken, 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 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 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/at work and using school/work resources, the school or workplace may have additional options. Certain forms of harassment may not be illegal, but may still be against school rules and regulations. The organization 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 open 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 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 they 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 against you. In the worst case, you might find yourself in violation of the law, and as a result face harsher penalties than the person harassing you.
Don’t do it. Don’t even try. It’s just 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 being aware of — perhaps even monitoring — what they’re doing online. It means setting rules with consequences, 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 media, 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 Detective 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 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 stay 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 for guidance on where to go next.
- Online Resources like NetSmartz.org from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
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.
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14 comments on “What Do I Do If I’m Being Harassed, Bullied, or Stalked Online?”
I have been harassed on line for years – someone signing me up for magazines, quotes, clubs, and they seem to know what emails I get, and also post things on you tube and other places under my account names. According to the monitor of one of the sites this person is posting, using my user account has this ip address – 188.8.131.52
How can I find out who this belongs to and get the police involved. Right now they don’t care because I’m not being physically attacked. But this person hacks into all sorts of accounts of mine and I feel frightened.
i am being harassed online in AOL and this has been going on for months. I contacted and wrote aol emails about whats going on. I even posted what the harasser was doing in the chatroom send everything they needed and yet he is still harassing me online follows me in chatrooms pretending to be me and calling out my family members names where else can report this man? he went as far as going on his webcam adn pretending to be me he has others helping him do his dirty work and theyre all hanging out in the christian rooms please give me advice thanks
Im being stalker by internet for this girl i dont even know and we dont even live in the same country.
She has this really ofensive blog to me and a lot of more people and i would like make it stop cause start to affect me friends and family who already have seen this blog.
I would love have any kind of help since i don’t live in USA im from south america.
Thanks a lot
Don’t publish personal information publicly – Google yourself & you’ll be amazed at what you might find. Don’t publish information publicly in newsgroups, public forums, social networking sites & other places that somebody can see. Even the smallest tiny bit of personal information here & there can be used by a savvy stalker. Assume your worst enemy is looking for you, & every tiny piece of information you leave on line helps them.
Don’t assume you know somebody you have never actually met – there is nothing that says somebody is who they say they are. Only five times you have actually met them, or perhaps when somebody else you know (i.e. somebody you have met) has in fact actually met them nose to nose are you able to start to assume you know who you are speaking to. On the net it is trivially simple to appear to be something or somebody you are not.
I am friends with a family where someone outside the family created a Facebook site using their 15 year old daughter’s name and info, and started harrassing all her friends and making her look like a terrible girl. The school, police and facebook would not do anything about it. All her parents wanted was for them to shut it down. But since she didn’t created it, they wouldn’t shut it down for her. It is sad when the people doing things like this have more rights than the people that get hurt. They ended up moving to another school district because of al the problems that caused. Since 99 percent of people don’t abuse these networks, and they were written for those 90%, it is very hard to weed out those that take advantage of this.
IP addresses 72.67.x.x are controlled by Verizon. An email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org stating what happened and when ought to bring a response.
there is a guy online he goes on bible fellowship1 room to harass me. he also pretends to be me and making everyone believe he is me. I am a christian and he is trying to ruin my reputation in the room he is succeding and having others help him with his dirty work. he clones me and uses my name what else can i do if aol wont help me? i reported him to notify aol many times but they dont seem to care. he has been doing this to me for months!! please give me advice thank you
To those who know who the online stalker/harasser is or at least how to reach them:
1. Print out and save all records of chats, IMs and emails from the perpetrator.
2. Email or IM the perpetrator once and only once to cease and desist contacting you. It is very important that you do not engage them beyond asking them to stop.
3. Block their emails, chat or IM requests. Procedures will vary from one system to another.
4. Report them to the venue they are using to reach you.
5. Remove all personal info from your online accounts.
6. If all else fails, close your accounts and open new ones elsewhere.
7. Report them to your local police with evidence you have gathered.
8. Get on with your life and stay safe online.
Hi what has happened is that my friends account got hacked so she made another account and we didn’t think anything of it but then her old account threatened one of our other friends telling her to go kill her self so i stepped in and had a fight with this anonymous hacker and it has been spreading all of our secrets and we think it is someone close to us and we have tried to meet with this person so we can figure out who is putting us though this and what happened recently was since i was super close to finding out who they were they somehow hacked into my whole device and shut it down and it is getting out of hand and this anonymous user is getting so much fun and we are so scared and we cant trust any one we see beacause of the fear that they could be the hacker
You may or may not be able to recover your old account, but you should harden the security on all of your existing accounts Facebook, email etc.
If you can’t recover the account. one thing you might try is to contact as many of your Facebook friends as possible from that old account and have them report this account
Have them go to your old page and click on the ellipsis (…) toward the upper right of the Timeline page, then check the “Report this Account” button. On the next screen select “This timeline is pretending to be me or someone I know” and follow the rest of the instructions.
You’d have to contact the website owners and possibly an attorney.
Closing comments as the majority of comments were from individuals who clearly had not read the article above.
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE READ THE ARTICLE. It has all of my suggestions for what you should do if you find yourself in situations like this.
“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 . . .”
There’s no guarantee, but considering the odds of the IP numbers matching coincidentally are infinitesimal and would significantly increase your chances of the police being willing to get involved.
Depends on their ISP. If, for example, they send from work a single IP address could be shared by thousands of employees. If they send from an internet cafe, dozens of patrons. A library? Ditto. There are many more cases.
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