Considering just how much time most of us spend online each day—whether it’s at work, at home or on a mobile device—it’s not entirely surprising that more than 4 in 10 Americans have experienced some form of online harassment.
If you haven’t been the victim of online harassment yet, chances are you will be at some point. Read on to learn how to identify harmful online behavior and what you can do to fight back.
Types of Online Harassment
Online harassment can take many forms, ranging from the merely cruel to the outright criminal.
- Cyberbullying and trolling: Cyberbullying and trolling are commonly encountered on social media sites, where so-called “friends,” followers or strangers feel emboldened to make rude or abusive comments on your posts or photos. Online forums and comment sections are rife with “trolls” who intentionally make incendiary or degrading comments to provoke a reaction from others. While not illegal in most cases, this behavior can be emotionally harmful to victims.
- Online impersonation: Online impersonation is when someone uses your name, photo or other identifying information without your consent in order to cause you personal, professional or financial harm. Perpetrators often use these fake accounts or other personal information to conduct “phishing” schemes, contacting the victim’s friends and family in an effort to secure personal data, passwords or even money. Online impersonation and phishing can be criminally prosecuted if the victim’s reputation is damaged or someone is defrauded.
- Catfishing: In this internet scam made famous by the movie and TV show of the same name, a person creates a fake online identity in order to pursue a relationship—typically of the romantic nature—with a specific target. If someone you’re communicating with online seems evasive or too good to be true, you might be the target of a catfisher.
- Cyberstalking: Cyberstalking is using the internet to harass, threaten or intimidate someone, and it is a federal crime. Cyberstalking may occur through a variety of digital channels, including social media, email, instant messaging and chat rooms, and can be prosecuted based on anti-stalking, harassment and slander laws.
- Doxxing: Doxxing is the process of revealing a person’s private information, including their phone number, home address and place of employment, to encourage others to harass that person and/or their family members. If this personal data is obtained through public records, doxxing may not be a crime, but if it is obtained through hacking someone’s personal email or other online accounts, it may be considered illegal.
- Swatting: In an extension of doxxing, swatting occurs when an individual’s personal information is used to make an emergency police report with the hope of having an armed SWAT team sent to the victim’s house. This illegal tactic puts the victim at risk of accidentally being harmed by law enforcement and can be extremely intimidating.
Responding to Online Harassment
The most effective response to online harassment depends largely on the specific circumstances, but the tips below are excellent rules of thumb for any situation involving harmful online behavior.
Never feed the trolls: Online bullies and trolls feed off responses to their bad behavior. It’s one thing to engage in a heated discussion of the issues with someone, but when their rhetoric turns to personal attacks or hate speech, it’s best to disengage. You’ll save yourself time and frustration, and the troll will find somewhere else to spread negativity.
Adjust your social settings: Make your social media accounts private and be careful who you accept as a friend. If it’s someone to whom you have no real-world connection, they may be attempting to infiltrate your account for nefarious purposes. You can also block anyone who harasses you on social media.
Minimize your online exposure: For a modest annual fee, you can subscribe to a service like Removaly, Reputation Defender or DeleteMe that will take the time to remove your information from online data brokerage sites. If you prefer to do it yourself, you can go to the individual sites of all the major data brokers and opt-out of their systems.
Keep detailed records: If you are being harassed online, take screen shots of the messages, images or other unwanted behavior and document any reports you file with the site operator or other authorities. A complete record of the situation is crucial if you choose to pursue legal action against the perpetrator.
Report the harassment: If ignoring the cyberbully or cyberstalker doesn’t stop their behavior, report them to the site operator for violating their terms of service and request that the site remove the harmful content. If necessary, continue to contact the site managers via phone, email or even social media until you get a response. If you feel physically threatened or you suspect fraud or other illegal activity, report your experience to your local law enforcement agency right away. You can also reach out to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a division of the FBI that handles online harassment and related activity.