The Alarming Truth About Cyberstalking
In April 2018, Olympic runner Emily Infield received a message on Facebook from a stranger named Craig Donnelly—and then another message, and another, and another, all giving unsolicited recommendations for how she should take care of a running injury. The messages went on for a month before Infield, fed up, finally told Donnelly to stop and blocked him.
That was when she started getting voicemails from an unknown number. In them, Donnelly discussed his plans for their wedding. Then, an email from Donnelly announced that he would be traveling from Portland for the wedding ceremony the coming weekend. An expensive FedEx package he sent to her home address was the last straw—Infield rushed to obtain a protective order against her stalker, which he would violate in 2020, leading to his eventual arrest. Donnelly is currently in federal custody, awaiting trial.
After Donnelly imposed himself into her life the second time, Infield took to Instagram to vent about her experience. She told ESPN that her post was met with an outpouring of solidarity from hundreds of women who had all gone through the same thing she had—cyberstalking.
What is Cyberstalking?
Despite the fact that acts which might be characterized as stalking have most likely been occurring for as long as humans have existed, a precise and commonly agreed-upon legal and criminological definition of "stalking"—cyber or otherwise—has yet to emerge.
For our purposes, though, we can settle for a definition that most experts probably wouldn’t reject outright: stalking is a pattern of unwanted sexual advances, threats, harassment, and/or other pursuit behaviors that targets a specific victim and provokes in them significant emotional distress.
Cyberstalking, then, may be understood as a pattern of behavior satisfying these criteria which is conducted through the Internet and other telecommunications technologies. It is sometimes used interchangeably with “cyberbullying”, although the latter typically refers to cyberstalking and online harassment between minors.
Types of Cyberstalking
Unfortunately, the internet provides cyberstalkers with many different avenues of attack against victims. Some of the strategies they use include:
- Making unwanted and persistent contact through social media, instant messaging, email, text, message boards, chat rooms, or over the phone
- Publicly disclosing the victim’s full name, home address, phone number, and/or private information online (aka doxxing or doxing), often with the intent of directing others to harass or otherwise harm the victim
- Uploading revenge porn or other compromising recordings of the victim
- Spreading rumors or false accusations about the victim, impersonating them in an unfavorable way, or otherwise defaming them online
- Threatening and harassing the victim and/or their loved ones
- Contacting the victim’s friends, family, employer, co-workers, etc.
- Monitoring the victim’s whereabouts and activities through the internet by using spyware or IP tracking
It is important to note that none of these acts constitute cyberstalking if performed just once and in isolation; rather, cyberstalking is the pattern of behavior that emerges when they are repeated or performed in series.
It’s difficult to draw any solid conclusions about cyberstalking’s prevalence due to a lack of data—few victims report their experiences to law enforcement, and crime statistics on cyberstalking are not routinely collected or published.
Nevertheless, the available numbers do seem to suggest that cyberstalking poses a significant problem for today’s internet users, and that it follows similar patterns as offline stalking:
- Prevalence: A 2016 report published by the Data & Society Research Institute found that, of the nationally-representative sample of 3,002 American internet users surveyed, 8% had ever been cyberstalked. Similarly, 7% of the 4,248 American adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2017 self-reported as cyberstalking victims.
- Relationship to stalker: In cases of offline stalking, the stalker is often someone familiar to the victim—frequently a partner or ex-partner. The same might hold true for cyberstalking; according to the Data & Society report, about 30% of survey respondents who had been cyberstalked by a single individual reported that the stalker was a current or former partner, while 14% had been stalked by a friend or former friend. However, it seems that some cyberstalkers take full advantage of the anonymity afforded to them by the internet: around 20% of the respondents said they didn’t know who was stalking them.
- Length of victimization: As with offline stalking, incidents of cyberstalking may be protracted affairs; one 2014 study reported that the average duration of the cyberstalking incidents recorded by the National Crime Victimization Survey was over a year and a half.
How to Report Cyberstalking
Is cyberstalking illegal?
Cyberstalking is a federal offense under 18 U.S. Code § 2261A, a provision of the Violence Against Women act; however, section 2261A only applies to incidents of cyberstalking which occur across state lines. Whether or not intrastate cyberstalking is illegal depends on the state in which it occurs: some states, like Washington, have specific cyberstalking laws, while others have provisions in their stalking laws that account for cyberstalking. To complicate things even further, stalking and cyberstalking are not consistently defined across these laws—a cyberstalker who’s found guilty in one state might have gone free had they been tried in a different state. For more information on stalking and cyberstalking laws in your state, visit your state government’s website.
What is the difference between cyberstalking and online harassment?
As with “stalking” and “cyberstalking”, there is no single prevailing definition of “online harassment” (also called “cyber harassment”), and it is often used as if it were a synonym of “cyberstalking”. In law, however, a distinction is often drawn between the two; according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, online harassment is typically defined as “not involving a credible threat”, whereas threat is present in cyberstalking. They also differ in that, unlike cyberstalking, online harassment is not a named offense under US federal law.
What is the punishment for cyberstalking?
If a cyberstalker is tried federally, they may be fined $250,000 and sentenced up to a five years in prison (or more, depending on the exact nature of their crime). Punishments at the state level vary significantly by jurisdiction, but often include prison time and a fine as well. At both the federal level and in many states, victims may file an order of protection against cyberstalkers.
What are the consequences of cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking may severely disrupt victims’ lives and inflict harms that linger well beyond the incident of stalking. Several studies have noted that mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, panic disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, often follow cyberstalking victimization.
Victims have also reported damage to their personal relationships and careers as a result of cyberstalkers defaming them online. If they fear being targeted further, victims may withdraw from certain online spaces or even go offline entirely.
Cyberstalking Prevention and Response Tips
- Install up-to-date anti-malware and antivirus protection on your devices to ward off spyware attacks and data theft.
- Use a virtual private network, or VPN. A VPN redirects your personal internet traffic through one of the VPN’s remote servers, which hides your IP address—a series of numbers attached to every internet-connected device attached that, if known, can reveal your physical location—and allows you to connect to a private network that will keep your data encrypted even when you connect a device to public, unsecured WiFi.
- Limit what personal details you share online, and whom you share them with. At a minimum, don’t make contact information like your address or phone number publicly available, and don’t accept friend requests from profiles you don’t recognize without screening them first.
- Tighten up your passwords—cyberstalkers may attempt to log into your online accounts in order to impersonate you or get more information about you. Don’t use personal information (e.g. your birthdate) as passwords in order to make them harder to guess, and try to use different passwords across all sites and devices so that if one is compromised, the rest are still secure.
- If you’re being cyberstalked through text messages or phone calls, contact your phone service provider and ask them how you can get a new, unlisted phone number. There are also often state-based registries to get your phone number and address removed as a public record.
- Report abuse to the administrators of the platforms your cyberstalker uses to harass you.
- Look into your options for obtaining a civil or criminal order of protection. If you are being cyberstalked by an intimate partner or ex-partner, you are eligible to get a domestic violence protection order in most states. Some states also grant stalking-specific restraining orders—you don’t necessarily need to have a personal relationship with your stalker to be granted one of these. See this list of restraining order laws by state for more information.
- Depending on the state in which you live and your relationship to your cyberstalker, it may not be possible to get a restraining order against the stalker unless they are arrested and tried in criminal court. As such, you may want to consider taking your problem to local or federal law enforcement if you feel safe doing so.
- Save screenshots or other records of every instance of cyberstalking, as you’ll need this information if you choose to take legal action or file a police report. A log like this one from the National Network to End Domestic Violence can help you to document exactly what happened for future reference.
The internet puts cyberstalkers in reach of potential victims with just a few clicks or taps. Knowing how to identify and respond to incidents of cyberstalking can help keep you and your loved ones safe.
If you or someone you know is a victim of cyberstalking or offline stalking, we hope these resources might help:
Victim Connect is a helpline that assists victims of crime with learning about their rights and options. Visit https://victimconnect.org/ to chat online, or call or text 1-855-484-2846
WomensLaw.org hosts a state-by-state directory of programs that offer help and referrals to victims of abuse of all genders at https://www.womenslaw.org/find-help/advocates-and-shelters
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached by phone at 800.799.SAFE (7233), by text at 88788 (text “START”), and through live chat at https://www.thehotline.org/