We rely on the internet for just about everything, but one of the primary activities we use it for is socializing. From social media to forums to online gaming, the internet is a great place to foster connections with people all over the world. However, some online interactions can become unhealthy, and in the worst cases can even go so far as to become cyberstalking.

What is cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking is the virtual version of stalking, which is defined by the Department of Justice as conduct “directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.” This conduct can be varied, but often takes the form of including unsolicited contact (phone calls, emails, texts), following or watching a victim, or spreading rumors about the victim. Stalkers often make threats or vandalize their target’s possessions, and stalking can escalate into more dangerous and serious situations.

When stalking goes online, it becomes cyberstalking. Both crimes often occur in conjunction, as about one in four stalking victims also reported cyberstalking through email or instant messaging, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Cyberstalkers often use apps to track your location

What’s the difference between cyberbullying and cyberstalking?

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberstalking is just one facet of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying usually refers to conduct between school-age children, while cyberstalking applies to adults. Cyberstalkers tend to focus more on monitoring or tracking their target’s physical location than a cyberbully might.

How can you tell if you’re a victim of cyberstalking?

Most stalkers are someone you already know – including a current or former intimate partner. But online stalkers can also be strangers that fixate on a victim, especially celebrities or popular influencers. While cyberstalking does happen to both men and women, women are twice as likely to be stalked as men. Stalking is a crime, and most states have laws in place specifically about cyberstalking. Because stalking can sometimes escalate into a more dangerous situation, it’s a good idea to be aware of what this can look like in an online environment. Here are three ways to tell if someone is cyberstalking you:

an inbox full of messages

1. Your inbox is always full

At least once a week, you can guarantee receiving a message, comment, or email from this person – even if you ignore them or have asked them to stop contacting you. The messages may be innocuous, or they could be suggestive or contain violent language. Or they may try to force you to respond to them by threatening harm to themselves or others. This is not only a way for a stalker to gain their victim’s attention, but also a way of instilling fear through threats or a refusal to recognize boundaries.

2. They know everything about you

This person may show up unexpectedly in person or may send you messages about what you did that day. Stalkers are constantly watching for new ways to get close to their victims, and that can often mean tracking social media accounts or geotagging in photos. This person may also reach out to your friends, family, and coworkers to get more information about you. Some use viruses to gain access to your computer or information, installing spyware or a key stroke tracker that helps them gain access to your passwords. Some may install GPS trackers on vehicles, which allows them to monitor where their victim is from their smartphone.

3. Someone is spreading rumors about you

Abusers seek to separate their victims from anyone who might help them, so pay attention if your friends or family bring up strange rumors about you. A cyberstalker may threaten to damage your reputation, including ordering sensitive or embarrassing things in your name to humiliate you, or by threatening to share private photos. They may pose as you on social media or in online forums to make it look like you are doing and saying things that you aren’t. These tactics are used to isolate and discredit their target, which in turn can make victims feel like they are all alone and without recourse.

A young man looks at his smartphone

What to do about cyberstalking

Realizing that you may have a stalker online can be a scary situation, but there are steps you can take to handle a cyberstalker:

  • If you are afraid that you are in immediate danger, do not hesitate to contact 911. Do not take stalking lightly.
  • Document every interaction. Take screenshots, save emails, text messages, and direct messages and save multiple copies in places where you can access them.
  • Contact the police to file a complaint and be sure to present them with the evidence.
  • File a restraining order. To do so, research restraining orders in your area. You will likely have to file your request at a local or state courthouse.
  • Inform friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances that you are being cyberstalked and ask them not to share your information and whereabouts with anyone they don’t know.
  • Change email addresses, social media accounts, and phone numbers if necessary.
  • End all contact. Do not respond to any further messages and block the user on your social media channels.
  • Disable location services and geotagging on your phone and photos.
  • Use unidentifiable information on social media.
  • Beef up on your cybersecurity. Update your passwords to prevent a stalker from gaining access to your accounts, and make sure you have strong antivirus software to prevent the installation of malware on your devices.
  • Create a plan to keep yourself safe.

If you’re concerned that you may have a cyberstalker, take action immediately. It’s always best to trust your gut instincts and take action to protect yourself as soon as possible.