What is Cyberstalking? How to Recognize It and Protect Yourself

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What Is Cyberstalking? A Brief Guide to Prevent Attacks from Online Stalkers

Do you repeatedly receive unwanted messages, emails, or photos from the same person? Are they spreading rumors about you online or attempting to hack your personal accounts?

You might have a cyberstalker on your trail.

In recent years, incidents of cyberstakling have become increasingly severe. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent a cyberstalker from targeting you.

  1. Keep personal information online to a minimum.
  2. Optimize all your social media privacy settings and password-protect your devices and apps.
  3. Automatically install security updates.
  4. Use antivirus software.
  5. Hide your IP address with a VPN. We recommend NordVPN as it consistently tops our rigorous tests.

If you’ve fallen victim to cyberstalking, know that online stalking is a federal crime and you can report the stalker to the police.

You can also receive support from various organizations professional victim advocates. Read on for more informaton and advice!

The internet has changed the world forever. More than ever before, we’re using online spaces to conduct business, stay in touch with friends and family, or entertain ourselves. But, unfortunately, the internet is not always safe.

In recent years, the risk of cyberstalking has increased significantly. Between April 2020 and March 2021, nearly 10,000 reports of cyberstalking were filed. This is an increase of 300% in comparison to the previous year. With our continued reliance on technology, this number is not expected to go down any time soon.

Cyberstalkers use the web to target, harass, and intimidate their victims online. This can be done in a variety of ways, including email, social media, text messages, photos, or videos. The effects on the victim can be long-lasting and extremely damaging.

Is someone bothering you online? Do you want to learn how to protect yourself against cyberstalking? Read on for important information and resources.

What is Cyberstalking?

What is Cyberstalking iconAccording to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center, 1 in 4 victims of stalking has reported being targeted through technology (phones or computers). This makes cyberstalking closely related to both cyberbullying and in-person stalking.

What is cyberstalking? Cyberstalkers take advantage of the anonymity of the internet and use it to target and harass people online. Contact and communication directed at the victim are often inappropriate, threatening, or disturbing. The point of cyberstalking is to make someone feel fearful, distressed, or ashamed. In certain cases, cyberstalking leads to other forms of cybercrime, including identity theft, sextortion, and revenge porn.

It’s also highly possible that perpetrators take their stalking offline by following someone around, vandalizing property, and sending parcels to a victim’s home. 78% of stalkers in the U.S. use multiple means to harass their victims.

Are you at risk of being cyberstalked?

In 2017, the PEW Research Center found that 4 in 10 Americans experience a form of cyber harassment, including offensive name-calling, stalking, physical threats, and sexual harassment. A repeat of the study in 2020 showed similar numbers, but with a worrisome difference: the severity of online abuse has doubled since 2014. Incidents of sexual harassment and cyberstalking are becoming more intense.

Online harassment, including stalking, is more likely to happen to younger people aged 18-29 years old. The more time you spend online, the greater your risk of becoming a victim to cybercrime.

On top of that, research shows that nearly 65% of cyberstalking victims are harassed by someone they know personally, most often an ex-partner. According to the study, stalkers were motivated by perceived feelings of rejection or insult, jealousy, and revenge.

While cyberstalking can start out small, it can quickly become sustained over time.

Is “stalking” your crush on social media the same as cyberstalking?

Do you often head over to Instagram to see if your love interest has posted any new photos? Or do you tend to dive into the Facebook archives if you have a new crush? Many people use the term “stalking” to describe checking someone’s online activity.

This is not the same as cyberstalking. However, taking this behavior to the extreme can lead to cyberstalking. For instance, targeting someone on social media by flooding photos with comments or sending hundreds of messages per day can become intimidating and uncomfortable. Continuing to do so when asked to stop, definitely counts as stalking — and is, therefore, a serious crime.

In the United States, cyberstalking is considered a federal crime, though its illegality differs per state.

Cyberstalking laws iconThe legality of cyberstalking depends on your location. We take a closer look at how the United States and Europe deal with cyberstalking below.

Cyberstalking laws in the US

In the United States, cyberstalking is prohibited on both the state and federal law levels.

On the federal level, the law that protects against cyberstalking is 18 U.S.C. § 2261A(2). This law makes it illegal for anyone to conduct electronic communication with the intent to harm another person or put them under substantial emotional distress. This includes the intent to kill, harass, injure, intimidate, or surveil someone with the intent to do any of the above.

Additionally, victims can fall back on laws against sextortion and in-person stalking to make their case.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act can be used in cases where the victim has been secretly recorded or where the perpetrator has gained access to explicit photos and videos without consent.

State laws tend to vary. The following states have a form of cyberstalking legislation in place:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Hawai’i
  • Illinois
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • Texas

Additionally, Massachusetts has one of the toughest anti-cyberbullying laws and prohibits online taunting and emotional and physical abuse.

In Washington D.C., a cyberstalking law from 2004 has been disputed and adapted over the years. The state now takes the approach of preventing (cyber)bullying in schools and requiring schools to policies to address it.

If you’re curious about the law enforcement against cyberstalking in your state, it’s best to contact your local police department.

Cyberstalking laws in Europe

There is no specific EU law on cyberstalking or cyberbullying, though EU legislation does prevent the following forms of online harassment:

  • Expressions of racism and xenophobia
  • Sexual harassment (including exploitation of children)

In 2021, the European Parliament did adopt a legislative initiative report on tackling gender-based cyberviolence. But as of yet, this offense is not yet classified under the EU Crimes list.

Notably, Poland is currently the only European country that has clear cyberstalking legislation in place. Since 25 February 2011, cyberstalking is included in the Penal Code of Poland. Under Polish law, stalking is considered to be a type of emotional violence. Perpetrators can face a jail sentence of up to 2 years.

In the United Kingdom, the Protection from Harassment Act covers certain instances of cyberstalking, though it’s aimed more broadly at cyberbullying and online harassment. The Malicious Communications Act can also be a supportive piece of legislation for victims.

How to Recognize Cyberstalking

How to recognize Cyberstalking iconAre you noticing the same username commenting on every single one of your posts? Are you getting a lot of unwanted emails from someone? These can be signs you’re being cyberstalked, but they are not the only things to look out for.

Besides sending unwanted messages to someone, cyberstalkers will often try to disconnect you from friends and family. They can attempt to do so by spreading rumors about you online. The more isolated you are, the easier it is to harm you, extract personal information, or hack your online accounts.

Pay attention to your account activity online, and note when something feels off. If you receive repeated, unwanted communication, you might be at risk.

Examples of cyberstalking

Cyberstalking can take on many different forms, from posting rude or unwelcome comments online to using technology to blackmail a victim.

Here are some examples of what would be considered cyberstalking:

  • Tracking a victim online, then joining the same groups and forums
  • Sending threatening private messages
  • Creating fake social media accounts to follow the target, also known as “catfishing”
  • Extorting explicit photos from the victim and/or distributing these online
  • Sending unwanted gifts
  • Doxing and distributing private information without consent
  • Posting (real or fake) photos of the victim
  • Making false accusations against the victim
  • Installing tracking software on the victim’s devices
  • Hijacking a victim’s webcam

In certain cases, online criminals work together on platforms that are specifically created to organize and coordinate stalking and harassment. Such a platform is Kiwi Farms, which has such far-reaching effects that it’s been the cause of three suicides in recent years.

In September 2022, the platform was dropped by its hosting provider Cloudfare for the damage that it has done with targeted harassment campaigns. Whether Kiwi Farms will come back online remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, Kiwi Farms is not the only forum where cybercriminals work together. This is why it’s important to recognize the signs of cyberstalking.

How cyberstalkers attack victims

Some cyberstalkers are vengeful exes, while some have unhealthy romantic obsessions with their victims. Depending on their motivation, cyberstalkers use a wide range of online methods to target and torment victims. It’s important to be familiar with these methods. They might help you realize that you’re being cyberstalked.

The most common method of cyberstalking is sending personal messages to the victim, followed by recruiting other people to defame and gather information on the victim. Posting messages in public forums (like social media) is also a tactic often used by cyberstalkers.

Hacking into a victim’s online bank accounts is the least used method of cyberstalking, followed by using the victim’s device to download files from the internet.

Methods of cyberstalking infographic

Effects of Cyberstalking on Victims

Relentless cyberstalking can have serious emotional and physical consequences for victims. Personal and professional reputations may be tarnished as a result of rumors spread by the stalker. In certain cases, there’s also financial damage, for example when bank accounts are hacked.

On top of that, these can be the effects of cyberstalking on victims:

  • Insomnia and interrupted sleeping patterns
  • Heightened anxiety, depression, anger, and aggression
  • Feelings of helplessness and distrust
  • Problems with concentration
  • Physical discomfort like headaches or stomach issues
  • Fear of entering new relationships
  • Trust issues with current partners

To the extent that it’s possible, it’s important to limit the chances of being targeted and do what you can to protect yourself online. We talk you through this in the next section.

How to Prevent Cyberstalking

Preventing cyberstalking completely is not possible, but there are definitely steps you can take to be more resilient online. This has everything to do with maintaining proper digital hygiene.

If you take basic online safety precautions across your devices and online accounts and avoid posting personal details on the internet, perpetrators will have more trouble reaching you. This won’t just keep you safe from cyberstalkers, but any online criminal looking for an easy target.

There are several ways you can prevent cyberstalking.

Ways to avoid cyberstalking infographic

1. Don’t post personal information online

Any information you post online can be used against you. Cyberstalkers are often looking for vulnerabilities in your social media, for example by checking the geo-tags on Instagram posts. The more you tag people and places, the easier it is for someone to stalk you.

Never post your personal address, date of birth, phone number, or bank account details anywhere online. Create a gender-neutral screen name separate from your real identity. If you operate a business online or own a blog or website, use a contact form instead of direct email.

You can also tell your friends and family not to tag you in photos, share your location, or post any personal details about you on social media sites either.

Finally, it’s recommended to use encrypted messaging services that keep your personal communications safe. This limits the chances that anything private ends up in the wrong hands.

2. Do an internet search of your own name

A good preventative measure is to check whether there’s personal information about you online by Googling your own name.

Has a website posted details about you without you knowing? Ask them to remove it. The blog you started five years ago might still be out there with your photo and personal email address. It’s probably time to take that down.

3. Optimize your privacy settings

Privacy browser iconMost social media platforms have privacy settings that determine who can see your content and under what conditions. By regularly going through the privacy settings for your Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Google accounts, you can protect yourself better online.

Make sure that you only accept friend requests from people you know and trust. Disable your geo-location settings on all your apps and devices. Don’t forget to do this for Google Maps or any other navigation apps you use, too. These apps are often easily targeted.

4. Automatically install security updates

Devices like smartphones, computers, and tablets regularly receive security or bug fixes. Often, these are in response to a recent hacking strategy or new security vulnerabilities.

It’s tempting to snooze or delay those updates until a more convenient time, but don’t. The best thing to do is to set all updates to install automatically. That way, as soon as a security fix is released, your phone will install it. This keeps you safe from all kinds of cybercrime including hacking, which some cyberstalkers use to harm their victim.

5. Use antivirus software

Laptop with a bug shielded icon and blob backgroundSome cyberstalkers use malware or spyware in order to steal your information or spy on you. Harmful links can be hidden in emails and aren’t always obvious to users. In some cases, a stalker might have physical access to your phone and install a spying app that way. It can be tricky to know whether someone is spying on your phone.

Antivirus software prevents these attacks, among other things, by doing a virus scan of your devices. To help you choose a good antivirus software program, we’ve created a top five you can choose from. We’ve tested dozens of antivirus programs, and the top-performing software is Norton 360. Norton 360 has a 100% virus detection rate, a webcam protection feature, and a privacy monitor that alerts you if your personal information is posted online. You can check our full review, or learn more by visiting their website.

Learn more about Norton 360

6. Hide your IP address by using a VPN

Another way to protect your identity from online criminals is to use a virtual private network (VPN) when you are browsing the internet.

In certain cases, cyberstalkers will use your IP address to try and track your internet service provider account, and any connected personal information they can find, including address and credit card number. A virtual private network hides your real IP address.

On top of that, a VPN allows you to browse the internet anonymously, which is an additional security benefit. Keep in mind, however, that your social media accounts are still tied to you, even with a VPN.

Especially if you use public Wi-Fi networks a lot, a VPN is a must. For hackers and other cybercriminals, public Wi-Fi networks are an absolute goldmine.

If you’re looking for a solid VPN that’s affordable and keeps you protected online, have a look at NordVPN, our top-rated VPN.

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7. Password-protect all your devices and accounts

Always use unique and secure passwords. If the person who stalks you is someone you know, it’s easier for them to guess passwords. Create a strong password and change it regularly.

There are a lot of good, free password manager apps out there that we’ve reviewed and recommended, in case you need a little help.

8. Take precautions after a bad break up

Sextortion by your ex or someone you know iconWhile you are not responsible for someone else’s behavior, it can help to be extra careful online if you’ve recently had a bad breakup. If your ex-partner is angry, abusive, or being difficult in any way, make sure to change your passwords, including email, social media platforms, and bank accounts.

If you’re back on online dating sites or apps like Tinder, make sure you don’t share any private information. Avoid connecting with any suspicious profiles and block them right away. If you’re interested in someone and would like to meet up, you can video chat with them upfront, to make sure they are who they say they are.

Trust your instincts and delete your profile if you don’t feel safe.

If you’ve already fallen victim to online stalking, know that you are not alone and that there are many resources you can use.

What to Do If You’re a Victim of Cyberstalking

Are you being stalked online? Chances are it’s someone you already know, maybe an ex or a social media contact. Even if you don’t know the person, the emotional impact can be rough. Luckily, there are things you can do to reduce harm to yourself and prevent further attacks. Take a look at the steps below.

Steps to protect yourself from an active cyberstalker infographic

1. Tell the cyberstalker to stop contacting you

Maybe you’ve already done this, but in any case, it’s an important step. Tell the cyberstalker firmly that you do not want any further communication with them. You don’t need to explain yourself. After, refuse to interact with the stalker in any way.

In response, cyberstalkers will either stop or increase their attacks. Save a record of your communications in case you do need to file a complaint or police report.

2. Report your cyberstalker

Stay safe and report Sextortion iconMost social media sites, like Instagram, have features that allow you to report harmful behavior. If the activity violates the platform’s privacy policies or community guidelines, a perpetrator can be banned.

If the cyberstalking continues, or you feel unsafe, report it to law enforcement and plan to include all records of communications from the cyberstalker. If you feel unsafe doing so from your own computer, use a public one.

File an official complaint and, where possible, submit whatever documentation you’ve kept on the stalker’s activities.

If you know your devices have been hacked or fraud has occurred, you can report it to the FBI or make a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Reporting internet crimes is easier when you save all evidence you have of the crime.

You can also contact a mental health professional at the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-855-4-VICTIM (1-855-484-2846).

3. Block the cyberstalker on all platforms

Use in-app blocking features on your social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat so the cyberstalker cannot reach you. Only accept friend requests from people when you’re absolutely sure you can trust them.

If you own a website or blog, on WordPress for example, you or domain administrators can block a specific IP address from accessing your site.

4. Save all communications for evidence

Save messages by taking screenshots or printing them, and do not alter them in any way. Law enforcement can use anything from emails to comments on social media posts as evidence, if necessary.

5. Set (or reset) privacy settings on your devices

If you haven’t already, go to your privacy settings on your social media accounts, and make sure that only your approved contacts can message you. A cyberstalker can create new accounts to try and contact you, which is why you need to prevent them from regaining access.

Tweaking your privacy settings for WhatsApp or on smart devices like your iPhone or iPad is important if you want to protect your personal information and identity.

You can also get your devices checked by a professional and install, if necessary, anti-spyware software.

6. Inform friends and family and build a support network

Group chat iconIf you’ve experienced online harassment, you have every right to be scared, stressed, and anxious. Friends and family can offer support. Also, if they know what’s going on, they won’t accidentally reveal your information if the cyberstalker reaches out to them.

If you think the stalker may try and contact you at work, let your employer or human resources manager know. They can support you and even help reduce any damage to your professional image by taking their own office security measures.

Finally, there are organizations prepared to help victims get the support they need:

Cyberstalkers want you to feel isolated. Don’t let them win.

Protect Yourself From Cyberstalkers

Being stalked online is a scary experience. It can damage your emotional and physical health, tarnish your online reputation, and harm your online accounts. However, you can take steps to protect yourself online by understanding the signs of cyberstalking and taking security precautions.

If you do become a target of cyberstalking, report it right away to social media sites and law enforcement. Remember to optimize your social media security settings and to find support. Whether it’s friends, family, or a therapist, make sure you set up a system of support that can help you through a difficult time.

What is Cyberstalking?: Frequently Asked Questions

Want to learn more about cyberstalking? Read on to find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about online stalking.

Cyberstalking is a form of online harassment where someone uses electronic communication to repeatedly intimidate, threaten, or extort someone. Examples of cyberstalking include:

  • Sending unwanted messages via text, instant messaging, social media, email etc.
  • Hacking, spamming, identity theft, or other forms of electronic sabotage
  • Making false accusations in order to damage a victim’s reputation
  • Distributing explicit photos or vidoes
  • Doxing (publishing personal information)
  • Sending malware or spyware

In the United States, cyberstalking is a federal crime.

While it’s not possible to completely prevent the chance of falling victim to cyberstalking, there are online precautions you can take.

  1. Be careful about what personal information you publish online.
  2. Do a Google search of yourself to see what comes up.
  3. Optimize privacy settings of all your social media accounts.
  4. Password protect your devices and apps.
  5. Make sure security updates are installed automatically.
  6. Use antivirus software.
  7. Hide your IP address with a VPN.

Stalking is defined by the US Department of Justice as involving “repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.” In recent years, online harassment has become a more common stalking technique and can lead to other forms of online crime, such as revenge porn.

In the United States, cyberstalking is a federal crime. You can be fined, receive a restraining order, or end up in jail for up to five years.

On top of that, all fifty states have their own laws prohibiting cyberstalking, stalking, sexual extortion, or online harassment which, upon conviction, result in criminal penalties.

If you’re being stalked online, know that you’re not alone. There are steps you can take:

  1. Keep evidence in the form of screenshots and report the stalker to local law enforcement.
  2. Cut all contact and block the stalker on social media.
  3. Reset all your online privacy settings.
  4. Reach out to professionals at the Victim Connect Resource Center.

You can find more tips and useful organizations to contact in our guide on preventing cyberstalking.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.