According to The National Center for Victims of Crime, "cyber stalking" is threatening communication or unwanted advances directed at another person using the Internet and other forms of online and computer communications. It can involve the use of email, instant messaging, chat rooms, bulletin boards and/or other electronic communication devices to repeatedly harass or threaten another person.

The process of stalking a person in real life generally requires that the perpetrator and victim be in close physical proximity. Cyber stalkers can be across the street, the country, or the globe from their victims. Cyber stalking can cause the same kind of trauma to its victims as "traditional" forms of stalking. Cloaked behind a username, stalkers can be difficult to identify. Some repeatedly change usernames and accounts to slow down or deter the identification process. The anonymity of the Internet makes it easier for perpetrators to carry out their attacks against their victims.


How Cyber Stalking Can Happen

Cyber stalkers meet their victims in a variety of ways. Frequently, the cyber stalker and the victim have had a prior relationship (either online or in real life) and the cyber stalking begins after the relationship has ended. In some cases, however, cyber stalking is committed by strangers who have obtained a victim's personal information on the Internet. Unwitting victims may post a treasure-trove of personal identifying data on social networking sites including their age, phone numbers, personal interests, and photographs. Cyber stalkers can use Internet search engines to find out additional information they can use to harass their victims.

Cyber stalkers are generally motivated by a desire to control their victims. Statistically, most cyber stalkers are men; however, there are reported cases of women cyber stalking men and same-sex cyber stalking. Victims can be any age. Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) conducts annual surveys on cyber stalking; for more information, visit the WHOA website.

Sophisticated cyber stalkers have been known to use computer programs to send messages at random or regular intervals without the cyber stalker even being at their computer terminal. Some impersonate the victim and post personal information along with controversial or suggestive messages on bulletin boards or in chat rooms.


Information for Victims

If you are a victim of cyber stalking, it is important that you know the steps available to promote your safety, document the harassment, and initiate an end to the abuse. Victims who are teens or children should immediately tell their parents or another adult they trust about any harassment or threats. Adult victims should send a clear, written warning to the harasser to stop the contact or harassing behavior. It is important however to avoid getting into a "back-and-forth" exchange with the harasser. If at any time you feel your physical safety is in jeopardy you should contact your local police department for assistance.

Documenting all communication with the offender and any organizations you contact for help in stopping the harassment may be of assistance should the harassment continue. Saved documentation can include all emails, postings, or other communications including log files from IM and chat clients in both electronic and hardcopy format that are not altered or edited in any way. You may want to explore whether you can block the offender through your email program or chat room. If the behavior continues, you may also file a complaint with your Internet service provider (ISP) and your harasser's Internet service provider (ISP). Most ISP's have a department that is available to speak with you.

If the harassment continues, or if at any time you fear for your personal safety, contact your local police department. If the local police are unable to assist you, the Massachusetts State Police, your local District Attorney's office, or the Attorney General's may be able to provide assistance.

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Massachusetts Laws Governing Cyber Stalking

M.G.L. c. 265, s. 43: defines stalking as willfully and maliciously engaging in conduct that seriously alarms or annoys a specific person and would cause reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress and makes a threat with the intent to place person in fear of death or bodily injury. Such conduct, acts or threats include, but are not limited to, conduct, acts or threats conducted by mail or by use of a telephonic or telecommunication device including, but not limited to, electronic mail, Internet communications and facsimile communications. Stalking is a felony that is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for up to five years or by a fine of not more than $1000, or imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than two and one-half years or both.