Cyberstalking is a crime in which the attacker harasses a victim using electronic communication, such as e-mail or instant messaging (IM), or messages posted to a Web site or a discussion group. A cyberstalker relies upon the anonymity afforded by the Internet to allow them to stalk their victim without being detected. Cyberstalking messages differ from ordinary spam in that a cyberstalker targets a specific victim with often threatening messages, while the spammer targets a multitude of recipients with simply annoying messages.
WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse), an online organization dedicated to the cyberstalking problem, reported that in 2001 58% of cyberstalkers were male and 32% female (presumably in some cases the perpetrator's gender is unknown). In a variation known as corporate cyberstalking, an organization stalks an individual. Corporate cyberstalking (which is not the same thing as corporate monitoring of e-mail) is usually initiated by a high-ranking company official with a grudge, but may be conducted by any number of employees within the organization. Less frequently, corporate cyberstalking involves an individual stalking a corporation.
WHOA reported that, in 2001, cyberstalking began with e-mail messages most often, followed by message boards and forums messages, and less frequently with chat. In some cases, cyberstalking develops from a real-world stalking incident and continues over the Internet. However, cyberstalking is also sometimes followed by stalking in the physical world, with all its attendant dangers. According to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, cyberstalking is often "a prelude to more serious behavior, including physical violence." In 1999, a New Hampshire woman was murdered by the cyberstalker who had threatened her in e-mail messages and posted on his Web site that he would kill her.
There are a number of simple ways to guard against cyberstalking. One of the most useful precautions is to stay anonymous yourself, rather than having an identifiable online presence: Use your primary e-mail account only for communicating with people you trust and set up an anonymous e-mail account, such as Yahoo or Hotmail, to use for all your other communications. Set your e-mail program's filtering options to prevent delivery of unwanted messages. When choosing an online name, make it different from your name and gender-neutral. Don't put any identifying details in online profiles.
Should you become the victim of a cyberstalker, the most effective course of action is to report the offender to their Internet service provider (ISP). Should that option be impossible, or ineffective, the best thing to do is to change your own ISP and all your online names. WHOA reports that over 80% of cases reported in 2001 and 2002 were resolved by these methods, while 17% were reported to law enforcement officials.