Dealing with cyberstalking: How to protect your privacy and stay safe online

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With the proliferation of smartphones and social media, cyberstalking is on the rise. Compared to traditional stalking, cyberstalking can be a more threatening form of aggression as cyberstalkers can hide behind the anonymity of the internet and terrorize their victims around the clock. However, there are measures you can take to protect yourself and your privacy. 

In this article, we’ll explain what cyberstalking is, how cyberstalking invades your privacy, and what you can do to protect yourself and stay safe online.

What is cyberstalking?

The non-profit organization Protection Against Stalking defines stalking as “a pattern of fixated and obsessive behavior that is repeated, persistent, and intrusive. It causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim”. Cyberstalking is the online extension of traditional stalking and is carried out using online tools such as social media, email, and chat rooms. 

While traditional stalking often involves physical harassment or assaults, unwanted phone calls, and blackmail letters, cyberstalking includes threats of physical violence, online privacy invasions, and technological attacks.

Unlike traditional stalking, cyberstalking does not require close physical proximity to the victim. Instead, it occurs on an omnipresent scale, and has the capacity to do significant harm to the victim’s emotional well-being, social relationships, and reputation through online means.

Who is behind cyberstalking?

Most cyberstalkers have or used to have a relationship with their victims. They may be a former partner, coworker, or acquaintance. Most cyberstalkers harass their victims for one or more of the following reasons:

  • To take revenge on a grievance they may hold towards a victim.
  • To demean, embarrass, or scare the victim.
  • To damage the victim’s reputation.
  • To track the victim’s whereabouts without them knowing.
  • To steal the victim’s identity and impersonate them online.

According to preliminary research conducted by Leroy McFarlane and Paul Bocji, cyberstalkers usually fall under four profiles: 

  • Vindictive: A vindictive cyberstalker is known for their ferocious attacks on their victims. Their stalking tendencies involve both online and offline harassment. 
  • Composed: A composed cyberstalker typically has no relationship to their victim, and their only goal is to inflict distress and annoyance. 
  • Intimate: An intimate cyberstalker is someone who is trying to gain the victim’s attention and/or enter into a relationship with them.
  • Collective: Collective cyberstalkers involve two or more individuals who work together to harass their victim.

Cyberstalking as an invasion of your privacy

The ease and convenience of the internet have led to an uptick in cyberstalking crimes. What you post online can reveal a lot about you, and with a bit of research, a cyberstalker can easily access your personal information. If you own multiple social media accounts, a cyberstalker can glean information from each account and construct a detailed profile of you. 

Additionally, if a cyberstalker gets a hold of your computer, they can even install spyware to track your online interactions, purchases, reading habits, browsing history, and more. Other examples of cyberstalking include: 

  • Sending you manipulative, threatening, or harassing emails
  • Hacking into your online accounts (such as banking and email) to change your passwords and impersonate you
  • Posting your private information and photographs on online forums and chat rooms
  • Encouraging others to join in on the harassment and spread rumors about you

How to protect yourself against cyberstalking

A cyberstalker can compromise your privacy and intimidate you and your loved ones. The first step to preventing cyberstalking is to post as little information about yourself as you can on the internet. 

Here are some tips you can take to reduce your digital footprint and protect yourself against cyberstalking.

Tip #1: Review your privacy settings on social media 

When you post on social media, you’re sharing more than just the post’s content. You might also be sharing information such as:

  • The time you made the post
  • Your location
  • Personal information about yourself, including gender, date of birth, and contact information
  • Who your friends and family are
  • Other links to your social media profiles

By reviewing your privacy settings and restricting social media, you can make intentional choices about what content gets shared, with whom, and where. This reduces the likelihood of a cyberstalker discovering information that might endanger your privacy. 

Tip #2: Use a VPN

Using a VPN has many benefits, but one of its biggest advantages is providing you with a greater level of anonymity. When you connect to a VPN, all of your online traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel and becomes unreadable to third parties, including your ISP and cyberstalkers. Instead of your real IP address, a cyberstalker only sees the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. This masks your physical location, protecting you from potential cyberstalkers.

With a VPN, you can surf the internet privately and securely without worrying that your information might fall into the wrong hands. 

Tip #3: Create strong passwords for online accounts

Practicing good password hygiene goes a long way in keeping your online accounts secure against cyberstalkers. According to a Verizon report from 2020, 36% of data breaches involve weak or stolen passwords. 

If you struggle to remember multiple complex passwords for different online accounts, try using a password manager. A good password manager will generate and save strong passwords for you, keeping your online accounts safe. The only password you will need to remember is your master password, which enables you to sign in to your password manager.

Alternatively, you can create a passphrase consisting of a series of words. Passphrases are more secure and easier to remember than a typical password.  Changing the capitalization of letters and replacing some letters with numerical and symbolic substitutes can make your passphrase a lot stronger. A secure and complex passphrase might look something like this: Oper@teElseCartOccas!on52.

Tip #4: Enable two-factor authentication 

Two-factor authentication (2FA) adds an additional layer of security to your online accounts by requiring a second form of identification. Even if a cyberstalker somehow gets a hold of your username and password, they will not be able to gain access to account data if you have 2FA enabled. 

You can activate 2FA on an online account and verify your identity through an authenticator app installed on your mobile device. Every time you log in to an online account, your authenticator app will generate a unique code for you to enter before you can gain access to your account. This ensures that a cyberstalker cannot access your online accounts unless they also have possession of your mobile device. 

Tip #5: Use email aliases 

Email aliases are a great way to organize your inbox and filter out spam, but they can also help preserve your online privacy. Since email addresses often consist of first and last names, creating an email alias without your full name can help you stay more anonymous while registering for online accounts and newsletters. 

You can create an email alias in two ways:

  • Set up a new email account without using your real name.
  • Tack on a plus sign (+) to your current email address. For example, if your email address is johnsmith@proton.me, your email alias could be johnsmith+newsletters@proton.me. All emails sent to your email alias will land in your inbox as usual. 

However, if your goal is to stay as anonymous as possible, you should not create an email alias from an existing email address that contains your real name. Instead, you should set up a new email address that doesn’t reveal your true identity.

Tip #6: Record and block all suspicious activity

If you suspect that someone is stalking you online, the first thing you should do is to block the person on all channels. If you move fast to block the cyberstalker’s opportunities to harass you, they may lose interest quickly. You should also add the cyberstalker’s email address to your Block List, so their messages land directly in your spam folder.

Additionally, you should gather evidence by keeping a log of stalking-related incidents as they occur. Be sure to include information such as:

  • Date and time of the incident
  • Description of the incident
  • Location of the incident
  • Witnesses to the incident

Recording all stalking incidents and behaviors will prove useful if you decide to file for criminal prosecution or a protective order. 

Use Proton Mail to protect yourself against cyberstalking

As a privacy-first company, our vision is to create a safer and better internet where everyone is in control of their data. Cyberstalking is a threat not only to your security but also your privacy. We believe you should be able to access the internet without worrying if your data might be stolen and how it might be used against you. 

If you’re concerned about having a cyberstalker, you can use Proton Mail to defend your online privacy and security: 

  • End-to-end encryption: If you and your recipient both use Proton Mail, you can send end-to-end encrypted emails to each other. This means your emails cannot be intercepted in transit or accessed by anyone except you and your recipient. 
  • Password-protected Emails: Use our Password-protected Emails feature to send encrypted emails to your recipients who do not use Proton Mail. To read the email, they must enter a previously agreed-upon password. 
  • Proton Mail iOS app: You can download the Proton Mail iOS app and activate FaceID, TouchID, or a PIN code. When enabled, your sensitive information can still be protected even if your device is compromised.  
  • Email aliases: Create as many email aliases as you want, or start afresh with a new email account
  • Spam filtering, Allow List, and Block List: We use a smart spam detection system to filter out unwanted emails. You can also easily route your cyberstalker’s emails to your spam folder by adding their email address to your Block List. 
  • Custom filters: Set up custom filters to achieve greater control over who can send you emails. 
  • Two-factor authentication: Enable 2FA on your Proton Mail account to protect the sensitive information stored in your emails. 
  • No ads: We do not sell your data to third parties or display ads to you, so your privacy is never compromised. 

Sign up for a free Proton Mail account

You can also register for our free VPN to become more anonymous on the internet. Proton VPN’s Free plan:

  • Has no ads, speed, or bandwidth limits
  • Hides your IP address
  • Has a strict no-logs policy
  • Is protected by Swiss privacy laws
  • Has native apps for all major platforms

When you use Proton Mail and Proton VPN together, you can truly safeguard your privacy and protect yourself against cyberstalkers and hackers.

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