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8/20/2004
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Understanding The Cyberharassment Problem

Here are some FAQ's to help understand the cyberharassment problem.

It may be helpful if you understand more about cyberstalking and harassment before trying to address it. These are the most frequently asked questions we encounter at WiredSafety.org. We provide one-to-one help to cyberstalking and harassment victims in our WiredPatrol Cyberstalking and Harassment Division using our specially trained volunteers.

What is cyberstalking and what is cyberharassment?
Cyberstalking and cyberharassment are similar. Most people use them interchangeably, but there is a subtle distinction, typically relating to the perpetrator's intent and the original motivation for their behavior. While the two situations usually involve many of the same online tactics, cyberstalking is almost always characterized by the stalker relentlessly pursuing his or her victim online and is much more likely to include some form of offline attack, as well. This offline aspect makes it a more serious situation as it can easily lead to dangerous physical contact if the victim's location is known.

Why do people cyberstalk or cyberharass others?
Cyberstalkers are often driven by revenge, hate, anger, jealousy, obsession, and mental illness. While a cyberharasser may be motivated by some of these same feelings, often the harassment is driven by the desire to frighten or embarrass the harassment victim. Sometimes the harasser intends to teach the victim a lesson in netiquette or political correctness (from the harasser's point of view). Often the cyberharassment victim is merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, or has made a comment or expressed an opinion that the cyberharasser dislikes. We've even seen cases where the victim is being targeted because they're the first ones the cyberharasser encounters when they are in a "bad mood."

What do cyberstalkers or harassers do when they stalk or harass someone?
The harasser may post comments intended to cause distress to the victim, or make them the subject of harassment by others. They may send a constant stream of E-mails and instant messages to their victims or a victim's co-workers, friends, or family. They may pose as the victim and post offensive comments or send offensive messages in their name. They may send hateful or provocative communications to the victim's boss, family, or significant other (in their own name or posing as the victim). Often the victim's computer is hacked or their E-mail accounts are broken-into by the cyberstalker or harasser and taken over entirely, or the password is changed and the victim locked out of their own accounts. The victim may be signed up for spam, porn sites, and questionable offers.

Cyberstalkers or harassers frequently follow their victims into chat rooms and onto discussion boards, posting lies and hateful messages, or passing misinformation about the victim. They may create sexually explicit images, using the head of their victims attached to the bodies of porn actors. If they have real sexually explicit or nude images of their victims (usually from a failed romantic relationship between the stalker or harasser and the victim), they may create Web sites posting the images and advertising the site to friends and family of the victim, or supply them to commercial porn sites with amateur image sections for public display.

In the most dangerous type of cases, the cyberstalker posts the name, address, and telephone number of the victim online, often posing as them, and soliciting sexual activities on their behalf. In a California case, a man targeted a woman by posting her name and address online and soliciting group sex. The woman had never even used the computer before, but found herself facing angry, sexually frustrated men at her front door. Death threats are typical in a cyberstalking situation. In fact, there have been several well-publicized cases in the United States where victims were eventually murdered by their stalkers. Many of these began as cyberstalking situations.

If there's any indication that a cyberstalker or harasser knows where the victim lives, works, or how to find them offline, law enforcement must be contacted immediately to begin an active investigation into the circumstances of the situation. WiredSafety.org's law-enforcement division, CyberLawEnforcement.org , assists law enforcement in cyberstalking or harassment cases.

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