In real life, stalking refers to a specific person making another person the target of their unwanted obsessive attention. Physical stalking includes various forms of following, secretly watching, incessant texting or calling to manipulate, and using other means to unexpectedly approach and harass the victim.
Stalkers in the digital realm appear to be motivated by the same intentions: harassing, embarrassing and threatening their victims. The only difference here is that the stalkers use online technology to do so. They use instant messaging, social networks, email and online personal data to contact victims inappropriately.
It is important to note that there is a distinction between cyberstalking and social media stalking. For example, it would not be considered malicious if you ‘researched’ a newly hired colleague by exploring their LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook profiles. Similarly, checking a friend’s social media as a way of getting insights into their life is fine, if not encouraged.
Cyberstalking, on the other hand, involves malicious intentions that include defamation, sexual harassment or exposing someone to harassment by others online. Many times, cyberstalking and physical stalking happen concurrently and become even more threatening.
Laws on cyberstalking
Are there laws that specifically address cyberstalking? Since cyberstalking is categorized under emotional assault, the laws governing slander and harassment are usually applied to communications of a purely electronic nature. However, these practices are typically problematic because confrontations in the digital realm are different from those in real life.
Some countries apply older laws while others have put in place new laws specifically addressing cyberstalking. Needless to say, these laws are still new, and many improvements still need to be made. Even so, more attention is being paid to cyberstalking and it is increasingly becoming regarded as a criminal activity.
Below are a few examples of cyberstalking.
Catfishing happens on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. In this case, an online stalker uses a fake user profile to approach a user, posing as someone interested in friendship or romance. To make the fake profile look real, the stalker might use images of existing users, effectively impersonating them.
If you have suspicions that someone might be attempting to catfish you, there are a few ways to determine whether their profile is real.
- Check their friend list. Catfishers usually have less than 100 followers or friends.
- Run a reverse image search on Google. If the results include links from multiple social media profiles, there’s a likelihood that they’re a catfisher.
- Check the photos of the user. If the images are only stock-style photos, single-person shots or selfies, there’s a good chance that they might not be real.
- Suggest making a video call and note how the person responds. If they are unwilling and keep coming up with excuses, you have a good reason to suspect that the profile is fake.
- Monitoring location check-ins
If you include location check-ins in all your posts on Instagram and Facebook, it’s easy for a cyberstalker to map your movements by simply scrolling through your social media feeds. Once this is done, it’s not difficult to identify the pattern of your movements and possibly your schedule.
- Visiting you virtually using the Street View on Google Maps
When a cyberstalker figures out the home address of a victim, they can simply type in Google Maps and use Street View to see how the house looks like. All this can be done remotely without having to go to the physical location of the victim’s home. Furthermore, cyberstalkers can virtually examine the surroundings of the home. For example, they can look at the surrounding building and alleys to get a sense of the neighborhood.
- Hijacking your webcam
One of the most invasive tactics that cyberstalkers can use to violate your privacy is hijacking your webcam and using it to spy on you. They can do this by tricking you into unwittingly downloading and installing malware that would enable them to use your webcam remotely. If, like most people, the thought of someone watching you using your webcam terrifies you, learn about how to detect whether your camera has been compromised and how to prevent it.
- Tracking your location using geotags
Online stalkers are fond of using geotags. Every digital photo you take typically has geotags, which is metadata that reveals not only the location where the photo was taken but also the time at which it was taken. These geotags are available in EXIF format, which is embedded in images. With the right app, a cyberstalker can extract the information and gain further knowledge of your whereabouts and behavior.
Keeping yourself safe from cyberstalkers
Cyberstalkers can be quite creative when looking for means to stalk you. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself. They are as follows.
- Review the privacy settings on your social media websites. These are the first places that the cyberstalkers target in order to monitor their victim’s online activity. Be careful not to overshare. Where possible, adjust the privacy settings so that only the people on your list of friends can see your posts. Instagram, for example, gives you the option of making your account private.
- Don’t unnecessarily broadcast your location online by virtually checking into places at every opportunity. Moreover, you can disable geotagging to avoid inadvertently sharing metadata of your location.
- Facebook Events is a neat tool for planning activities with friends and family. However, it can be a nightmare in terms of security if you want to steer clear of cyberstalkers. In addition to showing a time and a location where they can find you, it also gives them a glimpse into your interests.
- Make sure that all passwords for your important online accounts are strong and unique. Enable two-factor authentications in order to add another layer of security.
- Try and find out how vulnerable you are to cyberstalking by finding out how much of your personal information is available online. In case you’re not happy with the amount of information available about you online, take steps to scrub your online identity.
- If a cyberstalker inappropriately approaches you through email, instant messaging apps or social media, take screenshots and keep them as evidence that may prove useful.
Using a VPN to prevent cyberstalking
Implementing all of the above measures will greatly mitigate the risk of becoming a victim of cyberstalking. However, as we have said over and over again here, your best bet for guaranteeing your online security and privacy is by using a VPN. This security measure deserves its own section because it is among the most powerful tools you can have in your security arsenal, along with antivirus and antimalware software.
A VPN routes your online traffic through an encrypted tunnel between your device and a remote VPN server, so cyberstalkers cannot determine your IP address and can’t see the contents of your online traffic even if they intercept the signal. Cybercriminals and hackers tend to go for the easy targets, by protecting yourself with a VPN and other security tools, you greatly reduce the chances of becoming a victim.