About 15 years ago, having an email address and/or an instant messenger screen name meant you were riding the cutting edge of the internet. A couple of years after that, the hot trend was having a MySpace profile. Today, it’s generally assumed that everyone has at least a Twitter account or a Facebook page.
Over time, and as online services gain more and more capabilities, a couple of things happen:
- We forget about all the old stuff we signed up for, and that information stays out there.
- We offer up even more of our personal information simply because the boxes are there for us.
- We open ourselves up to being tracked online and become subjects of data-mining projects because the boxes are not there to opt-out.
Why is this a problem?
If you don’t know the answer to this question, you probably shouldn’t join any social networking sites.
Nothing done online is 100% anonymous. Not only can the source of the effort to put it online be tracked, but also the person’s online persona (the account and global online identity of the person), as well as the physical place of the person. Once the information exists on the internet, it is available for search in one way or another, then compiled and categorized. The more information that’s out there, the more to gather.
Why is this bad? Simple: cyber-stalkers or cyber-bullies. These acts are cyber-stalking or online harassment.
Cyber-stalking is the use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, a group of people, or an organization. It may include false accusations, monitoring, making threats, identity theft, damage to data or equipment, soliciting minors for sex, or gathering information to harass. “Harassment” must meet the criterion that a reasonable person, with the same information, would regard it as enough to cause another reasonable person distress.
The rest of this blog series will discuss how to protect your information from this kind of stalking effort, but the rest of this post will tell you what to do if you become a victim of these acts.
1.) Do NOT react. Period.
The very most important thing to remember is that you must not react. Don’t respond, don’t reply, don’t acknowledge the person at all. The people who get involved in this type of activity do it only to get a reaction out of the person, as shown by this SI.com writer when he got angry tweets about one of his columns and contacted the person. Often times they’ll do it under a fake online alias (whether it’s a fake human’s name, or a fake screen name) so that you can’t tell who it actually is.
If it’s happening over a SMS, or via your mobile phone, you can use apps like Mr. Number, CallerSmart, or Google Hangouts / Google Voice to block the number from contacting you, and possibly report them via the service to help other users of the app.
As upsetting and stressful as the messages like this will be, avoiding a response is the most important thing to remember.
2.) It’s not personal, it’s serial.
It is most likely that the person behind the act doesn’t even know you. Instead they have a preset collection of messages and responses and look for people online that have posted something related to the subject they have created responses for.
In my most recent case, I had someone come after me because my fiancée and I went to dinner at Uno’s Pizza. Later I found out he sent the same message to someone who’s girlfriend had a party for him at TGI Fridays. In the real world, we had no connection. Online, we fit the individual’s serial criteria.
3.) Take action on the site.
Chances are, this is all taking place on a public website that you don’t have control over. If you do have control over it, then you are probably aware of how to block the person. If you’re not, contact your web host’s customer service to ask about your options.
Most people who get targeted aren’t their own web host, I’ll focus on them: block the person.
My instance described above happened on YouTube. YouTube can block users from sending you messages, posting on your channel, and making comments on your videos. More extreme measures might also include blocking your Subscriber list, Friends list, or even Channel from public view altogether.
The main thing to remember, no matter what the social site is: make sure you have taken proper measures to prevent this person from contacting you…and don’t urge the person by responding or indicating that you even received a message from them.
4.) If needed, report it to the web service.
If the person continues to find ways around the privacy measures available from the web service, then visit the help pages to find out what their policies are on harassment and other unwanted acts.
For me, it took 3 separate reports, and a nasty message via Twitter to finally get results. Among the other things I did in preparation for the last day, I don’t know if it was the person, or YouTube themselves, but at the end of the day the individual’s account disappeared (after being active for several months with several thousand views to it).
5.) If it continues, report it to the police or FBI.
If the web service is not taking the proper actions, or if the person is threatening your physical safety by disclosing personal information, making physical threats, or other types of harassment, contact the Police. According to the US-CERT webpage on dealing with cyber-bullies the local police department or FBI branch are good places to start when reporting online harassment. If you are unsure where your local FBI office is, here is a directory of all their US locations that you can search by providing your state or zip.
The most important things to remember when someone picks you as a target for their online harassment are:
- Do not react: They feed off the target’s reactions.
- It’s not personal: Don’t take anything they say personal. It’s just stuff they found online, or made up completely.
- Block the person: Take any measures necessary to block the person from further contact.
- Contact the Website: If the person is making extra effort to get around the blocks you’ve put in place, contact the website
- Contact the Police/FBI: If the threats are becoming more real, or the harassment does not stop, alert the local authorities before it’s too late.
Next up, finding out what information is out there about yourself.