With the amount of time we spend online—and the corresponding amount of personal data we make available on the internet—online stalking has become even more common than real-world stalking. Fortunately, the more you know about cyberstalking and how to prevent it, the less likely you’ll be to become a victim of online predators.
In its most basic form, cyberstalking is the use of online resources to harass, threaten, frighten or intimidate a person. Cyberstalkers may use email, social media, instant messaging and other digital channels to harvest your personal information, monitor your activity, contact you and even impersonate you. Cyberstalking is a federal crime, and many state and local law enforcement agencies have specific units dedicated to fighting internet stalking and other nefarious online activities.
Defending Yourself Against Online Cyberstalking
Though our daily lives are increasingly entwined with our online activity, you have more control over your vulnerability to potential cyberstalkers than you may realize. The following preventive techniques and tips are highly effective in reducing your exposure to unwanted attention online.
Limit Access to Your Social Media Accounts
With just a few clicks, cyberstalkers can gather a motherlode of information about you from your social media pages: your name, date of birth, occupation, where you live, members of your household and even your daily habits and patterns. Consider limiting the amount of personal detail you share on social media, especially photos or event responses that reveal your specific location at a given time. Most importantly, adjust your settings for maximum privacy so people you don’t know can’t access your data.
You should also adjust your location-related settings on all social media accounts. Disable Location Services, which can track your location even when you aren’t using an app, and turn off geotagging to prevent bad actors from gleaning personal information from the metadata in any photos you share online.
Remove Your Data from Broker Sites
Nothing we do online—whether it’s shopping, banking, watching videos, reading news articles or connecting with friends—is free. Every move we make online has its price, and that price is almost always our personal data, which is why sites often require you to share your name, email address, date of birth and other information before you can access their “free” content or services. Even if they don’t expressly ask you for personal data, sites often use “cookies” that track your online activity to generate information about you.
Online information-gathering is a multibillion dollar industry, and data brokers are at the helm. These firms gather, sort, store, buy and sell the personal data of billions of internet users, and once your information is out there, it can be extremely difficult to reel it back in.
If you have the free time to fill out a bunch of online forms, most of the major data brokers—including Intelius, PeekYou, InstantCheckmate and Spokeo—allow you to opt out of having your information stored on their sites. However, this process can be tedious and time-consuming, and it’s almost impossible to identify and opt out of every single data broker out there, particularly the smaller, less well known firms.
A more comprehensive solution is subscribing to a service like DeleteMe or PrivacyDuck that will scrub your personal data from these online sites, but these services aren’t cheap—prices range from $129 to almost $1,000 per year—and they still may not be able to completely erase your information from the internet.
Keep Your Digital Devices Secure
Your computer, smartphone and other devices are a gold mine of personal data, and if you don’t protect them, you may be opening yourself up to unwanted intrusion by bad actors. Follow these digital best practices to secure your data:
- When you step away from your computer, always lock the screen or log out completely.
- Make sure your antivirus software is up to date.
- Protect phones, tablets and smartwatches with a hard-to-guess passcode.
- Use complex passwords on all accounts and devices, change them often and never share them with others. A password management system can help you stay secure without the burden of remembering dozens of complicated passwords.
Responding to Cyberstalking
If you are experiencing unwanted online attention, there are several steps you can take to fight back:
- Block the perpetrator on all social media and email accounts.
- Keep screen shots of any threatening or harassing messages or images you receive; these may help you build a case if necessary.
- Report the behavior to the site operator, especially if you know it violates the site’s terms of service. Be persistent and call, email or message them on social media until you get a response.
- If you feel threatened, sexually harassed or fearful for your personal safety, contact local law enforcement immediately.