Doors Open Ever Wider to Cyberstalking

15 things you can do to limit the risk of online harassment and deal with cyberstalking: Internet Scambusters #427

Hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, fall victim to cyberstalking every year.

There’s already so much public information about you online, and you may be unwittingly adding to that, opening the door for all manner of online harassment, as well as identify theft and burglary.

This week, we explore the scale of this growing threat and offer some advice on how to deal with it.

Doors Open Ever Wider to Cyberstalking

From control freaks who want to drive you nuts, through weirdos obsessed with you, to thieves waiting to burglarize your home, cyberstalking fiends surround us.

And their main allies? You.

Yes, that’s right; the information you give away about yourself and your location is exactly what they need to watch you or for online harassment.

The Internet now teems with sites that will search the whole web for information about you. With just one email address, they can show who you are, where you live, your age, marital status, your wealth, your hobbies, your job and which social networking sites you belong to.

They can even turn up photos of you and any pictures you might have posted online, or get to know about your individual likes and dislikes.

For instance, we just keyed in an email address used by one of the Scambusters team and discovered his favorite type of music. The search site simply used that email address to check music sites he’d visited.

Another Scambusters team member was shocked to see satellite images of her home — right down to her car in the driveway — and in-depth information about it, including number of bedrooms, square footage and approximate property value. Invaluable information for a would-be burglar.

The worrying thing is that there’s nothing illegal about this. These sites simply search on an email address, name or whatever information you give them, checking hundreds or thousands of public records.

Often, they return just basic information but, for a fee — as little as $2.95 a month — they’ll spill the beans on virtually everything there is to know about you.

Of course, you put a lot of this information online yourself, for your friends or others who share your interests. Some of it is also available from public records, like property information.

Or you were just asked for an email address when you registered at a particular site. And maybe you didn’t realize that dropping a nugget of information here and there would lead to someone pulling it all together and building up a complete picture of you.

As we often point out, this is the sort of information used for identity theft. But it’s also what nasty characters use for Internet stalking.

According to the latest figures from the Department of Justice, around 3.5 million people report being stalked in the US every year, and at least one quarter of them are victims of cyberstalking.

Goodness knows, additionally, how many people either don’t report it or don’t even know they’re being stalked. As the DOJ says: “Technology has become a quick and easy way for stalkers to monitor and harass their victims.”

It can take many forms. For instance:

  • Pestering an individual with unwanted personal messages by email, in chat rooms or using instant messaging services.
  • Tracking all your postings on social networks and photo sites and adding comments, often insulting or over-familiar, sometimes threatening.
  • Building up a record of your activities and interests so they can claim to know all about you, using it to befriend, scam or spaham (misspelled intentionally) you.
  • Blackmail and coercion.
  • “Virtually” tracking you by following your postings on so-called “geolocation” sites that you use to tell friends where you are. Some cell phones can actually be set up to transmit your location automatically.

Just this year, two stories we encountered illustrate the scale of the problem.

In one instance, a friend began receiving lengthy comments on every picture she posted on a well-known photo-sharing site. Then the commenter began sending messages to her, sometimes as many as 20 a day.

The more our friend asked this person to desist, the more messages she received, and the more hostile and abusive they became.

It seems likely that this cyberstalker just got a kick out of harassing the victim. Psychologists cite this kind of online harassment as a characteristic of “controlling” type personalities.

On another occasion, on a massively different scale, a researcher (fortunately a “good guy”) downloaded details of 850,000 people who’d checked through San Francisco Airport by simply raising a “who was here” query on a popular geolocation site.

It’s bad enough that this kind of information could be used for online harassment, to burglarize homes when owners admit they’re away, or even to steal their identities.

But the real worry is when this information is used as an aid to physically stalking someone, potentially putting their personal safety at risk.

So, what can you do to minimize the risk of falling victim to cyberstalking? Here are 15 tips:

  1. Use email addresses that don’t include your real name.
  2. Use different email addresses for each social network you belong to.
  3. Use a nickname that your friends know on social networking sites.
  4. Use as little personal information as possible about yourself online.
  5. Use whatever privacy controls are available on sites you visit to limit disclosure of information about you. Look for the “privacy” link or other controls that restrict who can see information about you.
  6. Think very carefully about the value of letting friends know where you are versus the value of that information falling into the wrong hands.
  7. If you know the name of sites that do the sort of “name searches” we mentioned, check if they offer an option to delist you, effectively excluding you from a search. We’re reluctant to name these sites as we’re pretty darned sure villains read Scambusters as well as honest folk.You may also encounter services offering to get your name removed from many of these lists. They charge a fee and we are unable to recommend any of them.
  8. Don’t accept online “follow” or “friend” invitations unless you know them or have checked them out. Chasing follower numbers just for the sake of it is an ego thing and actually does nothing for you.
  9. Remember when you go into a chatroom, you don’t know who other visitors really are, and there will be “lurkers” you never see, watching the conversations.
  10. If you can, ignore non-threatening (emphasis on “non-threatening”) messages and comments. Don’t reply to their emails. You might have to do this for an extended time before an online stalker gives up.
  11. Consider blocking an individual from “following” you. Be wary of this though. If they’re control freaks they’ll simply come at you with a different user name.
  12. Don’t use threats or aggression in response. It doesn’t work and, again, it gives controlling types a sense of victory.
  13. Don’t respond to suggestive comments, even if it seems just a bit of fun.
  14. Report any harassment to the operator of the site where it happened.
  15. Consider changing your screen name or, in extreme cases, even closing your accounts and abandoning the troublesome sites altogether.

Of course, if you are concerned in any way about your personal safety, you should contact the police.

With the increasing accessibility of personal information on the Internet, there is a simple golden rule you can use to shield yourself from cyberstalking: Be as anonymous as possible.

(Of course, also make sure your children know about this and report any type of online harassment to you.)

That means, if possible, not posting any personal information about yourself. There’s a price to pay of course — your friends won’t know as much about you as they might otherwise do. But neither will the cyberstalking creeps.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!