Are you being stalked? How to avoid the dark side of the Web

Most of us work and play on the Internet without fear. But the cyberworld can turn threatening when online stalkers use Web resources to track their victims. C.C. shows you how to avoid becoming prey--and where to get help if you're already a target.

You've got mail! Actually, you've got hundreds of e-mail messages, all from one person whose true name you may or may not know. Maybe you met this person online, in a chat room or a newsgroup. Perhaps he or she expressed an interest in meeting you, and you politely declined.

But "no" was not an acceptable answer, and the e-mails have gone from friendly to playful to flirtatious to pleading to angry to threatening. What now?

WELCOME TO THE WORLD of cyberstalking. It's not a new threat; back in 1997, California was one of the first states to pass a law specifically addressing harassment via computer. More than half of the states have such laws on the books, including recent addition Maine, which three weeks ago passed legislation that amended the crime of stalking to include communicating by electronic means.

Cyberstalking is an equal-opportunity crime, but women are more likely than men to be harassed. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, it's estimated that 8.2 million women have been cyberstalked at some time in their lives, with one percent reporting harassment within the past year.

ALTHOUGH IT'S EASY TO DISMISS a persistent e-mail admirer as a harmless kook, there can be more to it than meets the eye. (Read about some recent incidents that made the news.) Your fan can dig up a surprising amount of personal information on you just by using the Web, even if he or she doesn't know your real name. Don't believe me? Watch.

I cast myself as a stalker fixated on my brother (sorry, bro, but you made a nice guinea pig), with my only information his corporate e-mail address. When I typed it in at the Internet Address Finder, I promptly got a screen giving me his full name and that of his company. Next, I clicked over to Yahoo's People Search and input his name--I could even narrow it down by state, because a quick search on his company's home page showed me where it was based.

Bingo, I had his home address and phone number. Swing by and I can see exactly where he lives…convenient, since he's not answering my repeated threatening e-mails and I've been thinking about paying him a visit…

CREEPED OUT YET? I was--and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's plenty more about you online in the public domain, including property records, criss-cross directories (which give you an address if you have the phone number and vice versa), and records of your political contributions. That information is all readily available at no charge; if you're willing to pay a bit, you can purchase snoop software or hire an online service that'll go much, much further. That's all ammunition that can help a virtual harasser track you down and make life miserable--or downright dangerous--for you in the real world.

So what can you do to protect yourself online? Here are some simple precautions to help reduce your risk. (You can find a more complete list of suggestions from Working to Halt Online Abuse.)

  • Select a gender-neutral user name for e-mail, instant messaging, or chat.
  • Don't fill out profiles when signing up for e-mail accounts; provide only the information that's mandatory for account setup or registration.
  • Be careful what you say online; bear in mind that the tone and intent of typed communications can be misinterpreted.
  • Consider getting an unpublished, unlisted phone number. If you're in the phone book, you can be found online.
  • Be very cautious about posting your (or loved ones') photos on the Web; images can be a focus for unwanted attention.
  • Avoid engaging in angry or contentious debates in chat rooms, newsgroups, or discussion areas. If someone attacks you in a message or via e-mail, simply ignore it.
If you'd like to learn more--or if you're already being harassed and need help--here are some online resources.

Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) is an organization devoted to educating the public about online harassment. The site provides information and personal assistance if you're dealing with a cyberstalker.

SafetyEd is a non-profit that offers plenty of advice about safe surfing and online harassment; it also links to a variety of resources for Internet safety. The organization will also assist you if you're being harassed online.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, based in San Diego, Calif., maintains fact sheets about guarding personal privacy. These include what to do if you're being stalked and information about privacy in cyberspace.

The Stalking Resource Center is a joint venture between the National Center for Victims of Crime and the U.S. Department of Justice. You'll find safety strategies, bulletins, online help referrals, and a toll-free help line.