What is Cyberstalking and What is Cyberharassment?

Cyberstalking and cyberharassment are very similar. Most people use them interchangeably, but there is a subtle distinction, typically relating to the perpetrator’s intent and the original motivation for their behavior. While the two situations usually involve many of the same online tactics, cyberstalking is almost always characterized by the stalker relentlessly pursuing his\her victim online using different networks, digital communications and tools. It may also be more likely to include some form of offline attack, as well. This offline aspect makes it a more serious situation as it can easily lead to dangerous physical contact, if the victim’s location is known.


Why do people cyberstalk or cyberharass others?

Cyberstalkers are often driven by revenge, hate, anger, jealousy, obsession and mental illness. While a cyberharasser may be motivated by some of these same feelings, often the harassment is driven by the desire to frighten or embarrass the harassment victim or to get attention. Sometimes the harasser intends to teach the victim a lesson in netiquette or political correctness (from the harasser’s point of view). Often the cyberharassment victim is merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, or has made a comment or expressed an opinion that the cyberharasser dislikes. We have even seen cases where the victim is merely being targeted because they are the first ones the cyberharasser encounters when they are in a “bad mood.”


What do cyberstalkers/harassers do when they stalk or harass someone?

The harasser may post comments intended to cause distress to the victim, or make them the subject of harassment by others. They may send a constant stream of e-mails and messages to their victims or a victim’s co-workers, friends, or family. They may pose as the victim and post offensive comments or send offensive messages in their name. They may send hateful or provocative communications to the victim’s boss, family or significant other (in their own name or posing as the victim). Often the victim’s computer is hacked or their e-mail or social networking accounts are broken-into by the cyberstalker/harasser and taken over entirely, or the password is changed and the victim locked out of their own accounts. The victim may be signed-up for spam, porn sites and questionable offers. They may be threatened and intimate images of the vicimt broadcast by their harasser to destroy their reputation.


Cyberstalkers/harassers frequently follow their victims into forums, social networking groups, on timelianes and video-sharing sites and gaming sites, posting lies and hateful messages, or passing misinformation about the victim. They may create fake sexually explicit images, using the head of their victims attached to the bodies of porn actors. If they have real sexually explicit or nude images of their victims (usually from a failed romantic relationship between the stalker/harasser and the victim), they may create Web sites posting the images and advertising the site to friends and family of the victim, or supply them to commercial porn sites with amateur image sections for public display. We are even familiar with cases where the cyberstalker has threatened the life of the President of the United States or the Queen of England, while posing as the victim.


In the most dangerous type of cases, the cyberstalker posts the name, address and telephone number of the victim online, often posing as them, and soliciting sexual activities on their behalf. In a California case, a man targeted a woman by posting her name and address online and soliciting group sex. The woman had never even used the computer before, but found herself facing angry, sexually frustrated men at her front door.

Death threats are typical in a cyberstalking situation. In fact, there have been several well-publicized cases in the United States where victims were eventually murdered by their stalkers. Many of these began as cyberstalking situations.


If there is any indication that a cyberstalker/harasser knows where the victim lives, works or how to find them offline, law enforcement must be contacted IMMEDIATELY to begin an active investigation into the circumstances of the situation.


Is cyberstalking illegal? What about cyberharassment?

The laws tend to lump the two types of cybercrimes together. For the purposes of this guide, other than when there is a legal distinction, both cyberstalking and harassment are discussed under the heading “cyberstalking.” While most states in the United States have various types of cyberstalking/harassment laws on the books, there is a very powerful US federal law that covers cyberstalking in anonymous forms. Many Western European countries have cyberstalking/harassment laws, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Few Asian countries have cyberstalking/harassment laws at this time.


If I can’t file criminal charges against the cyberstalker/harasser, what can I do to them?

While criminal cases are becoming more common, often the victims of cyberstalking and cyberharassment are limited to civil litigation (suing the stalker or harassment) or reporting the cyberstalker/harasser to their ISP, networks and game sites, trying to get their accounts revoked, or profiles shutdown.


What about cyberstalking/harassment in the workplace?

Cyberstalking and harassment also frequently occur in the workplace, either because the perpetrator is unhappy with management or a fellow worker, or because they have been fired or not hired in the first place. Many cases occur when an employee feels they have been passed over for a promotion or raise, or denied a vacation/personal day/other perk. We have also often seen situations where a business or employees acting on its behalf (with or without approval) have targeted a competitor or its employees.


These are typically treated as commercial crimes and are often the subject of litigation between the competitors. It may also become the basis for regulatory agency actions (such as securities market regulators and trade or consumer commissions, such as the SEC or FTC or state consumer protection agencies in the United States).


How is cyberstalking and harassment different from cyberbullying?

While professionals in the space understand the difference, too many people confuse cyberbullying with adult cyberstalking and harassment. They are exactly the same, other than for the age of the victims and tormentor. Because young people are more vulnerable and fear reporting the incidents to their parents or school administrators (fearing consequences), we treat cyberbullying differently. The same rules apply – Stop (don’t answer back or confront the harasser/bully), Block (the person, account and message) and Tell (a trusted adult or another trusted adult). But we provide more protection and intervention when young victims are involved. Adults while hurt and fearful, have access to solutions and options that minors don’t. So, please don’t tell us that adults are cyberbullied and we missed that fact. Call it cyberharassment or cyberstalking and we can give you the kind of help adults need, and not treat you like children.


How is cyberstalking different from child predators luring kids in cyberspace?

While online contact with children by child predators is often called “cyberstalking,” experts distinguish these crimes as cyberluring, since the intent is to meet the child in real life or get them to cooperate in sexually explicit online behavior. Conversely, the intent in a cyberstalking/harassment situation is to cause fear, punish or hurt the victim.

Cyberharassment can involve child predators. For example, posting a child’s personal contact information online as advertising for adult sex is a form of harassment. However, in the United States, this is now prosecuted as a federal child exploitation crime, if the child being targeted is under 16 years of age. In addition, sextortion (the minor equivalent of revenge porn), where death threats, or threats to publicize the intimate images are used to blackmail the minor into engaging in virtual or real life sexual activities or creating images of child pornography are now covered by existing child sexual exploitation laws in most Western countries.


Are there different types of cyberstalking/harassment situations?

Absolutely! There are three different kinds of cyberstalking situations...

  • Online cyberstalking and harassment that stays online

  • Online harassment and stalking that ventures offline or encourages offline actions

  • Offline stalking or harassment that moves online and encourages offline and online actions or is merely online thereafter 


It doesn’t make any difference whether or not the victim has even used the Internet. The distinction between online and offline is dependent on the medium used by the perpetrator.


For example, online stalking/harassing is usually defined as “…repeated unsolicited contact by electronic means…” with the intent to “…terrify, intimidate, or harass…” another. The medium in this instance can include computers, Fax machines, telephones, games, social networks, email or text messaging, etc.


Offline stalking/harassment involves the same type of behavior, but in real life. This includes everything from repeatedly following a victim to actual physical contact between a stalker and his/her victim.


Although each of the three situations above include some form of online attack, and can be terrifying for a victim, only those that have an offline component are physically dangerous. Note: the laws in your jurisdiction may only cover offline stalking and harassment, or those with an offline component.


What is the profile of a typical cyberstalking/harassment victim?

Cyberstalking still occurs more often with women as the victim (63% to 37%), although that is gradually changing. Our most recent survey discloses that men are being cyberstalked and harassed more frequently by women than ever before.


Children who are stalked by adult sexual predators are not considered victims of cyberstalking, but rather are considered luring victims or victims of child exploitation..)


What can you do to avoid becoming a victim of cyberstalking/harassment?

Typically, the cyberharassment stranger victim (unknown to the harasser until they are targeted) is new online or to a network or forum and inexperienced with the rules of netiquette (online etiquette). So learning the rules of the cyber-road is a good way to avoid being an easy mark for a cyberstalker/harasser. WiredSafety's Wired-Ed classes teach smart and safe surfing, without charge, to volunteers and site visitors alike. The classes are easy and are available online in our safe chat rooms, by our trained Wired-Ed instructors and volunteers.


Typically, the cyberharasser feels empowered by the perceived anonymity online. They feel they can hide behind their monitor. But most people leave a trail of cyber-breadcrumbs behind them online. Learning how to read an e-mail header is a good place to start stripping your stalker/harasser of their perceived anonymity.

We also have materials and classes on protecting your privacy online.


Ignoring the communications sent to you is the best first step to stopping most cyberstalking/harassment. Unless your situation involves a truly obsessed or depraved harasser, most will lose interest quickly if they don't get the reaction they seek. Our cyber-self-defense tips can help you avoid cyberstalking/harassment entirely and stop it before it gets out-of-hand.


Flaming wars (where insults and verbal attacks are traded online) can often lead to cyberstalking and harassment. Flaming can get out of control quickly and often escalates into serious threats, offline and online.

Cyberstalking, where the real dangers arise, can have a substantial offline aspect, either by way of the victim and stalker working together, romantically involved or prior or current communications of some kind. Some are intent on targeting victims of sexual abuse, cancer patients and members of certain minority groups. Protecting your privacy is key to protecting yourself form credible offline threats.


Who is your typical cyberstalker?

Most cyberstalking victims know their stalkers in real life. They may be co-workers, former spouses, ex-romantic interests, someone with a grudge or interested in the same person the victim is, or frustrated suitors whose advances were ignored or rejected. They could also be fans or groupies, especially when a cyber-celebrity or well-known digital influencer is involved.

Cyberdating and online flirtations can be fertile grounds for cyberstalking, and are often a catalyst, especially when the relationship does not progress as anticipated by the stalker.

Sometimes, the current boyfriend, girlfriend, or ex-spouse of a victim’s former partner will resort to cyberstalking if they believe that the victim is interfering with their new relationship.

Radical religious sects and racial supremacy groups often use cyberstalking as a method for persecuting those that do not share their particular beliefs.

Money, politics, religious beliefs, revenge, hate, and romance are the most frequent motives for cyberstalking. In fact, any situation that evolved from an emotionally packed incident are likely to include an offline component that can pose a real physical danger.

Cyberstalkers with a special grudge against the victim may be extremely difficult to stop. Their anger, jealousy and obsession may foil the common cyberstalking self-defense tips, and ignoring their contact may enflame them even more. No one should attempt to tackle a cyberstalker alone. The stakes are too high.

Don't be a victim! And, if you get the sense that the person may try to stalk you offline, call your local police immediately!

What is a quick list of safety tips to avoid cyberstalking/harassment?

Read our cyberstalking Online Self-Defense Guide and know these online safety rules:

  • Don't respond to flaming (provocation online)
  • Choose a genderless screen name
  • Don't flirt online, unless you're prepared for the consequences. This is just like real life. Yes, you have the right to flirt. And you have the right to a sexy nickname. But the more obvious you are, the more likely you are to arouse unwanted attention from creeps
  • Save offending messages and report them to your service provider
  • If someone makes threats in a chat room or on a message board, notify the moderator or Web site operator right away
  • Don’t confront the stalker/harasser, this only arouses more anger or emotional attacks
  • Don't give out any personal information about your location
  • Get out of a situation online that has become hostile, log off or surf elsewhere while you get help or report the stalker
  • Google, Bing and Yahoo! yourself to make sure no personal information is posted by others about you


What is the law?

As the law varies from country to country and from state/province to state/province. The laws change quickly and frequently.