Cyberstalking: BlogHers Share Experiences and Advice

BlogHer Original Post

A couple of years ago, I was home alone with my son while my husband was in Southeast Asia. The phone rang at 3:00 a.m. and I immediately woke to answer it, thinking that with the 12-hour time change, it had to be him on the phone.  It wasn't.

It was an obscene call. I slammed the phone receiver down.  The phone rang again and this time I noticed an unfamiliar name and phone number on the caller ID.  I dialed an operator, stammering, "Can you tell me where this area code is located."  When I found out it was a mobile phone number, I immediately dialed 911 who alerted our local police department.  All the while, the phone kept ringing and my heart pounding.

The police arrived within minutes. They explained that I needed to fill out a police report and that if the caller called again, to answer it and enter #52 into my keypad. This would officially log the call into a statewide telephone harassment databank and that after three calls and the police report, I could take swift legal action. They also reassured me that the call was from an amateur as a professional would have hidden their identity from caller ID like telemarketers do.

While we were talking, the phone rang again. The officer picked it up and announced that he was a local police officer and warned the caller if he called again, the police would arrest him. This sufficiently scared the caller who did not call again.

I was reminded of that frightful experience when I wrote about some nonprofit bloggers in Cambodia being stalked BlogHer  (Check here for a more detailed account).

This made me curious? How many woman bloggers have been cyberstalked and what was their experience?  And, more importantly, what steps can we take to protect ourselves and what should we do if we are being cyberstalked?

Stalking is harassing or threatening behavior that an individual repeatedly engages in, such as trailing a person, appearing at their front door or place of business, making obsence or distressing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or destroying a person's property.

Cyberstalking is using the Internet to do all of the above and more.  For bloggers, it can be menacing emails or blog comments, plagiarizing the blogger’s blog, impersonating the blogger on another site, and in other ways.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice report estimates that there may be tens or even hundreds of thousands of cyberstalking victims in the United States.  It isn’t just a problem in the US. According to Seoulcat,  cyberstalking is rampant in Korea, with 1 out of 10 Koreans being the victim of some cyberstalking.  

Given the enormous amount of personal information available through the Internet, a cyberstalker can easily locate private information about a potential victim.  Notes one BlogHer contributing editor, “I was stalked in 2003. A reader of my blog found out where I worked and sent flowers. Anonymously. That's bound to freak you out.”

As with offline stalking, studies suggests that the majority of cyberstalkers are men and the majority of their victims are women.  Sixty-seven percent of cyberstalking cases are women, according to Jane Hitchcock, journalist and author, who provides a detailed demographic profile of victims of cyberstalkers at Working To Halt Abuse

There have been reported cases of same-sex cyberstalking, too, as this story from another BlogHer editor illustrates:

“I used to spend time in an online women’s community. One woman became a little too dependent and attached herself to me a little more than was comfortable. She read every message board post I made, not just on that particular site, but all over the web. She followed me to every chatroom. She posted non-stop on my old "guestbook". She called me at home all of the time. She sent emails by the dozen, daily. Sent ecards. Sent gifts, flowers, began to "threaten" to come and visit me - and I do mean threaten. Because by that point, I was trying to pull away. She was making me nervous.”

The editor – who was only willing to share her story if I protected her identity – said the incidents got worse and escalated  before her stalker backed off. “I was never afraid she would show up at my door (I lived on a military base when it was the worst and it would have been tough for her to get through the gate). Now, sometimes I do worry - I don't have that gate to protect me any longer.”

Cyberstalking can cross-over to physical stalking and in extreme cases be a prelude to more serious behavior, including physical violence. (More on the definition and incidence here)

Thankfully, none of the BlogHers I interviewed for this story encountered any physical harm, but they were afraid.  

Recalls one BlogHer I interviewed, “I have an old friend in another state who does gay erotic art. In 2002, I had only been blogging for about three months when he posted on his site about how a racist skinhead had taken a few of images from his website, altered the images digitally (for instance, changing anyone who was African-American in the original image to white), and put them up on his hate website as his own. I posted on my own blog about how outrageous I found this whole thing with links.”

“They easily followed the links to my blog, and they started posting all this stuff on their site about me.  I noticed that I was beginning to get a lot of visits to my site from Google searches for my name and the word "skinhead". Between that and the vitriol in their writing, I started to get really nervous. What if one of these skinheads or one of their fans tracked down my address or phone number?  I ended up removing the links to their site from my blog and let the whole thing drop.”

One BlogHer shared a few upbeat anecdotes. “A reader of my blog in England figured out my home address and has been sending me books from Amazon, and books for my son, for three years.  Another time I blogged about being sick, feel asleep and woke up to find some homemade chicken soup in my fridge! It was from a friend who had read my blog.”

But not all stalking experiences turn out to be warm and fuzzy memories, so it makes good sense to be careful.  The BlogHers I interviewed for this story offered advice:

Angie Manzano,  (who wrote about her cyberstalking experience here),  suggests “If you want a blog solely to keep in touch with family & friends use a blogging platform that allows you control who can read it.”    You can fine more tips about online saftey at the Working To Halt Online Abuse "Online Safety Primer."

If you do choose to have a public blog, another blogher warns “You should be careful who or what sites you mention by name or link to, because they will find out. My stalking experience made me much more cautious about what information I post about myself and what I post about others.”

Vivianne, a NYC-based blogger and librarian, has written about cyberstalking and provides advice here, here, and here.  And finally, a recent victim of cyberstalking and blogger advises, "If it happens to you, here is what to do: 1. Don't respond, 2. Assemble data, 3. Wallop them via legal means."

So tell me – has this happened to you? What would you recommend? And what do you think can or should be done about it?

Additional Resources:
Working to Halt Online Abuse
Cyberstalking Primer
Department of Justice Report on CyberStalking
Collection of Articles about Cyberstalking

Contributing Editor Beth Kanter also blogs at Beth's Blog and Cambodia4Kids