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What Do I Do if I’m Being Harassed, Bullied, or Stalked Online?

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.

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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?

You don’t.

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. Stop Cyber-Bullying

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?

YOU DON’T.

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.

Additional resources:

  • 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.

Stay safe

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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26 comments on “What Do I Do if I’m Being Harassed, Bullied, or Stalked Online?”

  1. 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 – 72.67.230.205
    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.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. In fact it’s the exact opposite. You get the authorities involved, and they find out who it is. You cannot.

    – Leo
    16-May-2009
  2. 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

  3. if your being harassed online by AOl members your out of luck.AOL does nothing. they are covered by the freedom of speech aspect.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. what i like to know is, im a person as well that was being bullied on the workplace.till this day,im still being harassed.im being cyber bullied as well.my question is im in college now to be a registered nurse do you think this can stop me from getting a decent job you know defamation of character?

  7. 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.

  8. 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

    The only thing I can suggest is to contact the police.

    Leo
    29-Nov-2011
  9. a man from pakistan who i dont even know hacked my facebooks and my hotmail accounts and took some of my personal images and has made a facebook account where he has posted the images along with many other girls personal images, i dont know what to do? he is stalking me i feel paranoid all the time thanks to him he hacked my hotmails so easily without having my details i am so confused

  10. What do i do if i am being harrassed online thru facebook adn police are not helping.. this girl is getting crazy.. im even being threatened and dont no what to do 🙁 about ready to give up 🙁 please help

  11. 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.

  12. HELP!!!, My stalker won’t quit, i’ve gone to the police ( i even rang the usa police in his state), i’ve done EVERYTHING, i’ve reported him to my email services they are powerless as he’s using a different company and the can’t stop his emails coming through i’ve blocked him, i can’t change my email address i’m stuck using it, i’ve tried the whole changing it and everything it didn’t work, so i’m having to put up with the bombarding of unwanted e mails, He’s now e mails me bi-monthly to up to two months two weeks then he waits for another near three months to strike. I’m ignoring him, he’s in the usa i’m in NZ, he’s been stalking me now for the past three years three months i’ve had enough. My email company told me to track down my stalkers phone company and report him as he uses verizon to stalk me, he’s completely insane he HSOULD be put into solitary confinement i even told him he needs help for his sickness he’s in denial which makes everything more hellish i want this to stop once and for all i’ve bent over backwards and i’ve saved so much evidance the law are turning a blind eye to it, i’m sitting on a gold mine and no takers. I can’t take another day of this hell i’m fed up with the daily fear for my life and families well being. He doesn’t take rejection at all well, i told him i find him to be vile and to leave me alone three years ,three months ago nope he latched onto me and has made my already hellish life worse. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE I NEED HELP IN PUTTING A FINAL END TO THIS INSANE MADMAN BEFORE HE STRIKES AGAIN. Thank you in advance for all your help it’s very much appreciated.

  13. Their is a big problem me and one of my cousin is getting harassed threaten and bullying by someone her name is {name removed} she won’t leave us alone she is telling me that I can’t go back to my home in Houston to see my family

  14. I’m being harassed and abused. I have police reports, called 911 several times and had the police over to my house. NO ONE BELIEVES ME. She pretends to be innocent and talks calm when the police are here and to her family/friends. But, when they are NOT here, she is evil. I wish that there was a law against people who harass and abuse others. 🙁

  15. 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

  16. hi I need help my ex husband going on many website saying I have herpes and gental wart to ruin my repution what can I do I asked for thee post to be removed and there not I need help badly

  17. My situation is a woman that my ex dated for 3weeks is harassing me. She has impersonated me to make it look like I was harassing her. She has created 2 different profiles in order to send me messages. Repeating verbatim things my ex and I were saying on fb messenger. We found that he was being hacked by an android 4 but couldn’t prove the owner. We don’t know how. I called her out by her real name in these messages showing her I know it’s her and threatened the authorities, and it’s stopped for a bit. But just started back up again. I don’t know how to prove its her. Really, I just want to put a scare into her to leave me alone. It’s very disrupting and upsetting. She gets off on the horrible things she says. I’ve reports the fake profiles to Facebook. But she just keeps creating new ones to message me. I’m set at all private. When I receive the message I have no clue it’s her until I open it. I’m not sure how far I can take this. She is sick and needs stopped.

  18. try having your family stalked, or yourself, spend money on 5 laptops, only to be completely shut out that a skilled computer tech cant even access, being watched and videotaped and having it put on display for everyone to watch. Try having someone buy a car in your name, only to be reppossed. Mr.Farty, it is you, that perhaps has not lost enough!!!

  19. Hello Leo,

    I am being harassed online. Someone is sending videos of my phone conversations and sending my wife facebook, Imstagram, and emails. Whomever it is is really trying to ruin my life. Can you please assist? I have tracked the IP address but it reflecting a hanger base in Mountainview, anything you can do to help would be greatly appreciated.

    • All your options for assistance are listed in the article you commented on. Please pursue those.

  20. 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.

Comments are closed.