Friday, June 15, 2012

Protect Yourself from Cyber Stalkers

StalkerStalking preceded the 1980 murder of John Lennon, and John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. Such high-profile cases raised the public’s awareness of this crime. While stalking can be committed by both genders against both genders, the majority of stalking victims are ordinary women, who are being pursued, monitored or threatened by someone with whom they have had a prior relationship. Often, the stalking begins when the victim attempts to break off an intimate relationship. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that approximately 3.4 million U.S. adults were victims of stalking in 2006. Individuals who are divorced or separated are at the greatest risk for stalking. Many victims of stalking suffer financial difficulties due to missed work, having to move, or court costs.

In recent times, online stalking has become a frequent occurrence. Thus, many cyber stalking cases include elements of both computer crime and domestic violence.

Many stalkers are motivated by a desire to intimidate and exert control over their victims and engage in more than one types of behavior to accomplish this end. A cyber stalker might post offensive statements on public websites encouraging others to harass the victim, divulge sensitive information about the victim with the intention of humiliating or endangering her, or falsely claim to be married or intimate with the victim. A cyber stalker may also send manipulative, threatening, lewd or harassing emails from an assortment of email accounts. Cyber stalking is often committed in a psychological state of obsessive rage or lust, and can cause serious emotional distress to the victim who will usually feel deeply violated. Stalking can lead to an assault or even murder. 

Stalkers may also commit identity theft against victims – including taking money from bank accounts, charging purchases to a victim’s credit card, and hijacking email accounts. This can be very easy to do to a spouse, when passwords and account numbers have been shared in the past, but computer hacking or sabotage by an estranged spouse is also becoming a frequent occurrence, motivated by revenge, a desire to discover evidence of an affair, or to prevent a domestic abuse victim from getting help or support from the community. Electronic Privacy expert Frederick Lane says that about 45 percent of divorce cases involve some snooping — and gathering — of email, Facebook and other online material. For this reason it is important to change or secure all personal accounts before announcing a divorce or separation or even earlier, when domestic abuse or neglect becomes apparent.

Once a stalker has accessed your email account, he will have access to all your personal emails, past and future. He will also have access to any other accounts that are linked to that account such as Facebook, dating sites, yahoogroups and PayPal. He can send out emails or post on websites impersonating you, subscribe or unsubscribe you from mailing lists, or erase your contacts. One stalker even set up a firewall preventing his estranged wife from accessing the internet service she had paid for! A stalker may not change your password right away, in order to continue to monitor your personal life without your knowledge. But once he has changed your password, it will be nearly impossible for you to gain access to your own account unless you use a paid email service.

However, there are things you can do ahead of time to protect your privacy. Never ask anyone else to check your email for you. Install spyware software. Don’t use cyber cafes. Keep your passwords secret and change them often. Check your recovery information diligently, since this could be used to regain access to your password after you have changed it. Change the answers to your secret questions. Leo Notenboom suggests in an online advice column that the answers that you choose don’t have to match the questions (you might say your mother’s maiden name is “Microsoft”, for example). All that matters is that the answers that you give match the answers that you set here if you ever need to recover your account.

In 2011, a Michigan woman, Clara Walker brought felony charges against her ex-husband, Leon Walker for hacking into her private emails during their marriage, but in most cases cyber stalking is not treated as a criminal offense unless it includes threats of violence or sexual coercion, or is in violation of a previously existing restraining order.

Because of the difficulty of protecting citizens from stalking, police detectives strongly encourage spouses to seek a restraining order at the first sign of alarming behavior rather than waiting to see if things will calm down. However, divorce lawyers often advise otherwise, since resentment over restraining orders can get in the way of profitable negotiations and parental visits. It is often hard to predict how low someone would go to harass you and how long it will continue. 11% of victims are stalked for 5 years or more, according to US Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, the longer a victim waits after the first credible threat the harder it is to demonstrate immediate danger in order get a restraining order.

If harassment continues after you have asked the person to stop, contact the harasser’s Internet Service Provider (ISP). Most ISP’s have clear policies prohibiting the use of their services to abuse another person. Often, an ISP can try to stop the conduct by closing their account. If you receive abusive e-mails, identify the domain (after the “@” sign) and contact that ISP. Most ISP’s have an e-mail address such as abuse@(domain name) or postmaster@(domain name) that can be used for complaints.

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