A whopping number of Internet users report falling victim to cyberstalking. Following classic fairytale narratives, perpetrators, sometimes seemingly nice in person, turn to villains when diving into the digital world.
Many of us might have felt stalked online. It can start with someone constantly liking your old Instagram pictures in the middle of the night or even taking extreme measures such as installing a stalkerware app on your phone.
Cyberstalking, using the internet and other technologies to harass or stalk another person, is on the rise and may affect any of us – from schoolchildren to those going through a divorce, from gamers to celebrities.
In 2019, nearly one million US residents aged 16 or older fell victim to cyberstalking. They reported receiving distressing messages, having unwanted information posted about them online, being spied on, or having their whereabouts tracked.
Unfortunately, cyberstalking is rising, and many such cases last for months and even years. Cyberstalking can induce psychological damage, including fear, anger, hypervigilance, and PTSD.
Cybernews reached out to a cyberstalking victim, as well as an expert dealing with such cases, to learn more about how to deal with villains.
One cyberstalking story started with a group of friends playing a fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), on Discord. The stalker, in this case, was a mutual friend, persistently trying to insert himself into the game.
“He was very much attempting to push himself to become much more of a permanent member in the game, even though we had made it clear multiple times that we did not have enough room for an extra person on the regular,” Reddit user who wished to remain anonymous told Cybernews.
At that moment, there wasn’t enough room for one more player for the game host to handle. As Reddit user said, he could just come in to observe the game for “laughs and fun.”
“He [stalker] just started responding very negatively after that. It started to get to very uncomfortable of how much he was attempting to push himself into it,” our interviewee recalled.
D&D players got upset since the person in question tried to push his standards of beauty or ableism, insisted that making an LGBTQ character an outcast was funny, and even went as far as drawing pornographic sketches of other people’s characters without their consent.
“This ongoing behavior of his started to become much more prevalent, not just in the game. It started to bleed into other aspects of how we would interact with each other socially, not just with D&D, to the point that he was sexually harassing one of my friends.” Cybernews learned.
That’s when the group of friends decided to let him know that this behavior was not appreciated and give him an indeterminate amount of time to think this over.
“Even though we all gave him this very clear boundary of not contacting us until we contact you first, within a day, he began to send us long messages. It ranged from him apologizing to him blaming us for what he did, and in other cases, saying that our friend should be grateful for what he did to her.”
Friends repeatedly asked him to stop, but he didn’t, so D&D players had no choice but to block him on their Discord, Twitter, and any other platform they knew he was on.
Anxiety, fear, and frustration
For a while, it seemed like Reddit user and his friends managed to cut what they called a toxic person out of their lives. It was before they learned that the person created new accounts to stalk the group, see what they were up to, what they were saying about him.
"Unfortunately, we never got information on what this new account was called, so we've never really had a way to block that. Even today, we're not sure if he's still stalking us," he said.
At one point, the stalker tried to contact the group from other people's accounts and kept sending disturbing emails.
"I can say for myself and the rest of us that we all had a lot of anxiety, stress, and powerlessness, knowing that he was still there, seeing what we were putting out on the Internet."
Some of his friends have even gone as far as making their Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts private.
"It is heartbreaking to know that we can't let others see our work and find us in the usual ways that we used to without that fear of him finding it."
Our interviewee said the group was part of the stalker's main circle of friends, they were close and conversing with one another almost daily.
"That can lead to the desperation of trying to cling to something you care so much about. If he had not been so aggressive in trying to keep in contact with us, this might have turned out to be different. Because he was so aggressive with cyberstalking us and sending us messages on a very obsession-like level, that ruined it for him."
Our interviewee said that being in a group and having friends going through the same thing made it easier for them to go through this and express anxieties, fears, and frustrations.
"That support system was really important for our healing process."
Brave when online
"This is a pretty typical cyberstalking case. It happens a lot with groups, in groups of gamers and people like that, especially when it gets highly competitive or when there's money involved," Keatron Evans, Principal Security Researcher at Infosec Institute, part of Cengage Group, told when asked by Cybernews to comment the D&D cyberstalking case.
The Internet produces villains – people who are generally lovely in person suddenly gain all this courage and turn to pretty intimidating cyberstalkers.
"Many of them would never intimidate someone or even have any friction with someone if it were in person. But suddenly, behind the keyboard where you're out of reach of everyone, those people who are technical savvy become the bullies," Evans said.
He believes that the D&D players did the right thing by asking the toxic not to interact with them. Once he started creating new accounts and finding ways to reach out, it became an obvious case of cyberstalking.
"At that point, you can contact law enforcement and let them know what's going on. There have been more and more cases where cyberstalking did turn into real stalking, in-person stalking, and in some cases in-person assaults and confrontations," Evans explained.
A victim's record asking a perpetrator not to contact them could help get a restraining order.
Evans says it's not a good idea to go and meet your online stalker in person because that creates an even more dangerous situation.
"You have to be careful with that because if you don't want someone to contact you online, but you invite them to contact you in person, that kind of sets up a disastrous type of relationship anyways."
In any case, he urges a victim to let as many people as they are comfortable telling know what's happening.
"The more people know this is going on, the more witnesses you'll have and the more likely it is for you to have some level of protection there. You may even let this person know that you've let your family, friends, and law enforcement know this is going on," Evans said.
Extreme cyberstalking cases
Former spouses trying to keep track of their exes is a typical cyberstalking case. During the pandemic, experts observed an uptick in stalkerware, often reported by domestic violence victims.
In cases when a stalker is an (ex)spouse and the victim is already experiencing domestic abuse, it's not recommended to confront the aggressor or even try to uninstall the app since this might alert the stalker. You can find some advice on what to do here.
"Generally, our role is to help collect evidence so that the victim can have their stuff together when they go to law enforcement or get help because it's not wise to try to interact with these people," Evans said.
Recently, he has observed a spike in what he calls stalking by strangers – stalkers abuse popular security cameras and doorbells.
"There are people who will buy those things just because most of these vendors have a community you can be a member of, see what people are posting and what's going on around their houses," Evans said.
It can be a good thing since this can prevent, for example, car theft.
"But a lot of times stalkers are using that same thing to keep track of what's going on and to stalk people."
Evans gets quite a lot of calls from celebrities being stalked. "They have the money to pay someone like me to investigate and try to help them. Many victims don't have the resources to pay for help."
He’s also planning to put together a resource to help people who can't afford professional help to aid in these situations.
Evans believes cyberstalking is on the rise since more people now work remotely and generally use the Internet more.
"Remember when you were going into the office and sitting at your office working on the Internet, you were going through all the security protections that your corporation had. Now you're just going through whatever you got at home, your little wireless router and whatever security you get at home, you're a lot more exposed than you were when you were going into the office to work."
Cyberstalking cases might be extreme. One of the stellar examples is an aggressive campaign carried out by former eBay employees that involved not only harassing victims by sending unsettling messages and comments on the social media platform and victim GPS traffic but also delivering a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, and a book on surviving the loss of a spouse to the victims' home.
Evans said cyberstalkers are persistent, and some buy services to keep investigators like himself from tracking them. For a judge to issue a subpoena or a warrant, a victim or their representative needs to make a compelling argument backed with enough evidence. A judge might not act on a message like "I hate you."
When can you get law enforcement to do something about the stalker?
"Death threats, pieces of evidence of other laws being broken. What some of these stalkers do is they'll go to a target's house and watch them through the bedroom window while they're sleeping and record themselves watching the person asleep. Then they'll come back and send that person that video to let them know, like, hey, I was watching you sleep last night, or I was watching you walk to work," Evans said.
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