What is cyberstalking? Definition and prevention

Complete strangers can see when you’ve liked a photo, commented, and a lot of other actions. Unfortunately, there are people out there that will stalk others in-person and online.  Most of us use social media nowadays to keep in touch with friends and family, but there is also the risk of being stalked online.
Cyberstalking is as serious as in-person stalking, so as the next post in our series on cybersecurity, we created this explainer so you can identify cyberstalking and protect yourself from any attacks.

by Montanna Owens
Man wearing glasses looks at computer in frustrated manner
Don’t let a cyberstalker get you down. There are ways you can fight back!

What is cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking is very similar to in-person or physical stalking. The special quality about cyberstalking is that it primarily uses email, social media, or other digital mediums to harass or essentially stalk someone. Groups and organizations alike can be victims of cyberstalking. Have you heard of cyberbullying? These two terms are often interchanged. They both include online harassment, threats, and intimidation by means of defamation, making false verbal statements against someone, and making false written statements against someone. For cyberstalking specifically this can also include identity theft. Be aware – sometimes cyberstalking is accompanied with in-person stalking.

How does cyberstalking work?

Due to the many opportunities to be anonymous on the internet, many stalkers are able to commit a cyberstalking ruse without their identity being revealed. The perpetrators can send viruses to a device in order to manipulate or gather data. Using deepfakes is also a common tactic cyberstalkers use to threaten their victims. These online stalkers can use various social media platforms or online channels to pursue their victim. Victims can experience cyberstalking by receiving numerous inappropriate, frightening, or harassing messages. Cyberstalking is also experienced by victims being tracked through online trackers or GPS.

Examples of cyberstalking

Cyberstalking has many different forms. Even though it is generally characterized by harassment and stalking, these are some examples of cyberstalking to know just so you know what to look for:
  • Doxing: This is the act of publishing private information about a person online without their permission. We also have a helpful explainer on doxing here: Doxing: When your personal data is published online
  • Cyberbullying: A criminal will repeatedly send hurtful and offensive messages about or to a victim with the intentions to harm them emotionally. This is often the term used when cyberstalking occurs among minors.
  • Impersonation: This is when someone acts or pretends to be someone else in order to deceive their victim and harm them. This can also be done in the form of catfishing which we cover in depth here: What is catfishing online & how to catch it.
  • Harassment: A cyberstalker will intentionally send offensive, threatening, and unwanted messages to a victim continuously. This is harassment because the messages seem to never end.
  • Online tracking: The online activity of a victim can be tracked extensively by a cyberstalker. This is done without the knowledge of the victim and can range from online activity to whereabouts.

What’s cyberstalking law?

But is cyberstalking against the law? Well, just like stalking, in many countries across various jurisdictions, cyberstalking is in fact illegal. Victims of cyberstalking as well as cyberbullying can take legal action if they are in a compromising situation. In the United States, cyberstalking crimes are listed under the American anti-stalking, slander, and harassment laws. It is considered a federal crime and can be punishable by up to five years in prison and fines ranging up to $250,000.

Now that you know the consequences for cyberstalkers, let’s investigate how to report cybercrime. Reporting a cyberstalker is quite simple; call 911 or go to your local police station and they should be able to assist further with the next steps. You can also report the crime to the Federal Bureau of Intelligence.

How to protect yourself from cyberstalking

No extra fluff here! We will get straight to the point. Protecting yourself from a case of cyberstalking can be in the form of small changes you make with how you use social media.
  1. Google yourself often: Google is the best place to check what information people can possibly know about you. If there is information there that is too personal or you would not like strangers to know about you, you should go through the steps to remove that information.
  2. Avoid TMI: Be cautious when sharing information about yourself; you don’t want to share too much information. It might be helpful not to share your phone number, birth date, address, and other sensitive information online.
  3. Privacy settings: Adjust your privacy settings across social media profiles and platforms to control who can see or interact with your page as well as contact you.
  4. Be aware of your surroundings: Keep your eyes peeled for the signs of cyberstalking listed above. Be vigilant and if something doesn’t feel right take a closer look and report it if necessary.
  5. Keep records: If you fall victim to a cyberstalker, be sure to keep records of all interactions, posts, messages, emails, and any other evidence. We understand that a stalker’s messages can be upsetting, and your instinct may be to delete them immediately. However, because they will be evidence for filing your report, it is better to drag and drop them to a file where you won’t have to see them (or set up a filter rule that does this automatically), ask a trusted friend to keep screenshots, etc. 
  6. Protect your accounts: Ensure you have antivirus and firewall protection to limit the chance of cyberthreats. Enable two-factor authentication on your social media accounts where it is possible. Your mail.com account has 2FA, of course – find out how to active it here: Email 2FA. Lastly, make sure your software and operating systems are up to date.
  7. Seek help: Cybercrimes can take a large toll on victims. Confide in those you trust and share your experiences for emotional support.
  8. Take legal action: If you feel you are a victim of a cyberstalking case, contact local law enforcement, an attorney, or the FBI.
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