Over the past few decades, our lives have become increasingly digitized. We do more things online than ever before: date, bank, shop, work, socialize, and entertain ourselves. We are living in the Age of Convenience, which is both a cause of celebration and a recipe for increased vulnerability. The shift to living virtually has happened so quickly and so pervasively that we have hardly had time to adjust to all the implications.
Just like every other sphere of life, crime too has gone online, and we are poorly prepared. In the old days, you might be mugged face to face in an alley or followed by a creep in a trench coat. Today, you are more likely to be a victim of cyberstalking, identity theft, or online harassment. The numbers are astonishing. As many as 1 million women and nearly 400,000 men are stalked each year in the U.S. Moreover, California has the highest number of cyberstalking victims and has maintained this record for over a decade. Half of victims tend to be younger adults under age 25.
Cyberstalking is a compulsion. It aims to humiliate, control, frighten, manipulate, embarrass, take revenge on, or otherwise harm the victim. Many cyberstalkers are obsessed, unstable, or otherwise mentally ill. Still, others are simply angry or hurt and have crossed the line into criminal activity when expressing these emotions. While they can exhibit charm and eloquence, they are generally isolated and desperate, have very low self-esteem, and are especially sensitive to rejection. The financial ruin of the victim can also be part of their goal. Where some of us may poke our nose into Facebook a little too often or fanatically follow a celebrity online, a cyberstalker will go further by repeatedly sending unwanted anonymous messages, threats, or comments, and he or she will continue doing these things despite repeated requests and warnings to stop.
Although in previous years stalkers tended to be ex-lovers, spouses, acquaintances, or other known individuals to the victim, today, cyberstalkers can be either known or unknown. They can target their victims via social media, dating websites, blogs, or by hacking into phones or personal computers where most of us store highly personal information without any security in place. Worst of all, cyberstalking can lead to escalation and does so in over 70 percent of cases. This can result in physical attacks and abductions, especially as perpetrators of domestic violence are more easily able to locate victims online who may be in hiding.
Because stalking in some perpetrators can be a form of addiction, it will not get better without treatment. The predator must acknowledge they have a problem and seek therapy and a significant amount of support. Usually this doesn't happen until something very negative has occurred, like the person is arrested or loses their job, friends, and family. Because it's unlikely that you will be able to "reason" with a cyberstalker, or in some cases even be aware you are a target, here are some basic methods of protecting yourself:
- Use anonymous emails (like Hotmail and Yahoo) to post online or for most communication, keeping your main account private or shared only with people you know very well. Be especially cautious on public computers.
- Be very vague in your online profiles. Never disclose your exact location, travel plans, children's names, birthday, phone number, or other important personal information. Remember that one in five cyberstalking victims have been targeted through social media sites. To be safe, don't friend people you have not met in person.
- Change passwords often. This includes debit cards, email, phone, social media accounts, and even voicemail. Think of it as something you need to do on a regular basis, like taking out the trash or cleaning out your closet.
- Always take threats seriously. Report them, document them, and address them.
- Always delete personal information and photos from phones and computers before selling them.