Online harassment is a complex topic that involves a multitude of behaviors. Several types of online harassment exist, and cyberstalking is a severe form.

Cyberstalking can include physical threats, stalking, sustained harassment, and sexual harassment.

This article discusses cyberstalking, its signs, and examples of cyberstalking behavior. It outlines the potential consequences of cyberstalking and when to contact the local authorities. It also examines how to prevent cyberstalking and what support is available for people who are experiencing cyberstalking.

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Cyberstalking is a form of online harassment in which perpetrators use technology such as phones, social media, email, and message boards to carry out a range of harmful behaviors.

Cyberstalkers take advantage of technology’s many features, including its ease of use, low cost, and anonymous nature, to harass, harm, or create fear in other people. Cyberstalking is typically deliberate and purposeful and often repetitive and persistent. It may arise from anger or from a desire for control or revenge.

Estimates of the prevalence of cyberstalking vary across studies. However, the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that 0.4% of all people ages 16 and older in the United States experienced cyberstalking in 2019 and that 0.6% experienced both traditional stalking and cyberstalking.

The BJS also notes that 54.3% of people who experienced cyberstalking and 80.9% of those who experienced both traditional stalking and cyberstalking knew the perpetrator in some way.

A person may be experiencing cyberstalking if:

  • someone is repeatedly contacting them after they have asked that person to stop
  • they perceive the communications they are receiving as harassing, annoying, or tormenting
  • they are receiving unwanted sexual advances
  • someone is sending them threats of physical violence

Cyberstalking can involve one or several of these patterns. Cyberstalkers repeat their communications to harass, scare, or threaten the person who is receiving them, causing the person to become concerned about their safety.

Cyberstalking can take many forms. Cyberstalking actions include:

  • sending threatening, controlling, or lewd messages or emails
  • sending excessive messages
  • posting offensive or suggestive comments, false accusations, or slander online
  • liking and commenting on everything a person posts online
  • tagging a person in posts excessively, even when the content has nothing to do with them
  • creating posts intended to shame a person
  • posting or distributing real or fake photos, nude images, or explicit videos of a person
  • attempting to extort sex or sexually explicit photos
  • bombarding someone with sexually explicit photos
  • joining the same groups and forums as someone in order to follow them
  • harassing a person’s relatives, friends, or colleagues
  • creating fake social media accounts to follow a person

Technologies people may use to cyberstalk range from basic to advanced and may include:

  • text messaging
  • email
  • instant messaging
  • chat rooms
  • forums
  • blogs
  • dating sites or apps
  • online gaming platforms
  • social media platforms, such as X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, Tumbler, Twitch, or Yelp
  • anonymous communication methods, such as Tor, remailers, or encryption
  • hacking technology, such as phishing, a Trojan horse, or malware
  • surveillance, such as GPS, hidden cameras, trackers, or keylogger spyware

Learn more about the signs of stalking behavior.

If a person has asked someone to stop cyberstalking them and the person continues to do so, it is crucial to take action against them.

It is important to keep copies of everything the perpetrator has sent as evidence. A person should notify local law enforcement and file an official police incident report. Some law enforcement departments have specialized cybercrime units, and cyberstalking is a cybercrime.

Some severely abusive actions, including stalking, threats, and hacking, could be federal crimes. In these cases, a person may consider reporting the incidents to both local law enforcement and the federal government. A person may also consider speaking with an attorney. An attorney can help a person file an order of protection, also known as a restraining order, to protect their safety and well-being.

People can also report the perpetrator to the website or service they are using to cyberstalk. For example, if a person harasses someone through Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, or another platform, they can inform the company, and it will take steps to address the matter.

Several laws focus on cybercrimes at the federal level, such as:

  • 18 U.S. Code Section 2261A: This law prohibits using electronic communication services, such as the internet, to engage in behaviors such as severe harassment or stalking. Stalking law requires that these behaviors have the intent to cause, or attempt to cause, substantial emotional distress or place a person in fear of serious bodily harm or death.
  • 18 U.S. Code Section 875: This law prohibits making threats, such as demands for ransom or extortion or threats to injure a person, their reputation, or their property, via interstate communication. Interstate communication is communication that travels across state lines, such as email and the internet.
  • 47 U.S. Code Section 223: This law prohibits the transmission of abusive, threatening, or harassing communications by telecommunications devices. Communication may include obscene comments, requests, suggestions, and images.
  • 18 U.S. Code Section 1030: This law prohibits knowingly accessing a person’s computer without authorization to obtain information, or computer hacking, including threatening to cause damage or for purposes of extortion.
  • 18 U.S. Code Section 1028: This law prohibits knowingly and without lawful authority using, transferring, or possessing someone else’s identity documents. This is also known as identity theft.

State laws on cyberstalking vary. A person can contact their local police department to determine their state’s laws on cyberstalking.

Cyberstalking can significantly affect a person’s mental and emotional health. For example, a 2021 review of studies and a 2022 study found that as a result of cyberstalking, people have reported the following:

Cyberstalking can also affect other aspects of a person’s life, such as their social life and career. Some people may change jobs, abandon social activities, or lose friends.

People who experience cyberstalking may also lose money as a result of expenses related to consulting lawyers, securing their technology, or seeking therapy.

By practicing good digital hygiene, people can help prevent cyberstalking and prevent people from contacting them and accessing their information. Digital hygiene involves being aware of one’s digital footprint online and how one can protect one’s accounts and identity.

Strategies a person can use to protect themselves against cyberstalking may include:

  • scanning the internet for information about themselves and asking websites to remove any personal information
  • using strong passwords and a password manager to keep track of all passwords securely or using multifactor authentication
  • password-protecting mobile devices
  • logging out of all accounts at the end of a session
  • never sharing private information online, such as their full name, date of birth, or email address, especially not with people they do not personally know
  • never sharing their location online in real time
  • disabling geolocation settings on devices
  • scanning their devices for software or hardware that monitors their online movements or location
  • installing email spam filters to minimize and prevent spam and email-based phishing
  • updating software to protect against information leaks
  • installing antivirus software to detect malicious software

Several avenues of support exist for people who are facing cyberstalking. It can be helpful to tell trusted friends, family, and co-workers about the situation so they can offer support and not mistakenly give out information to anyone posing as a loved one.

A person can also connect with an advocate who can explain local stalking laws, help them connect with local services, and help them develop a safety plan. People can typically find advocates at local domestic violence agencies, police departments, and district attornys’ offices.

People can also contact any of the following resources for support around cyberstalking:

If a person thinks they are in immediate danger, they should call 911.

Cyberstalking involves using electronic technology to harass, harm, or create fear in someone. People who cyberstalk use various techniques and technologies, including social media, email, and dating sites, to harass or manipulate others.

A perpetrator may send someone excessive messages, distribute real or fake content about them, hijack their online accounts, or track their online movements and locations.

Cyberstalking is a crime. If a cyberstalker does not stop when a person asks them to, that person can notify local law enforcement. Several federal laws protect people against cyberstalking.

Cyberstalking can significantly affect a person’s mental health, resulting in various symptoms. It can also affect their career and ability to socialize.

A person can use a range of strategies to help protect their information and hinder a perpetrator’s attempts to cyberstalk. Several support services are also available to help people who are experiencing cyberstalking.