Cyber stalking: Why are they not doing more to protect us online? A personal experience of abusive emails and other forms of cyber stalking.
A while ago I wrote an article on cyber stalking for Mookychick talking about the dangers of being online. I wrote this article from the viewpoint of a cyber geek and web observer. I now write this new piece from a different perspective – as a victim of online abuse.
In the past few months I have personally had to deal with some of the most violent and sickening messages sent to my inbox. This person started by emailing me over using an online message board. The kind that millions of people all over the world use everyday. As I was aware of trolling issues, I very quickly dismissed it but it soon turned into something very different. It wasn’t hard to get my online email address and I was emailed pornographic images, threats to kill me and my family, and long winded rants about how ugly and disgusting I was. It was worrying but at first, I tried not to let it get to me. After all I knew this person had no way of finding me (I keep myself very secure online) and it was highly unlikely that they were going to show up on my doorstep but opening my inbox everyday made me feel sick to my stomach. This had nothing to do with disagreeing with something I had posted on some random website. This was someone who saw an opportunity to target someone and I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and picked up the attentions of this weirdo. It did however eventually get to me in the end as I could not understand why someone I had never met hated me to the extreme that they felt a need to send me such horrible emails. It made me super paranoid. I had a couple of people in mind but couldn’t point fingers with no evidence and I began to suspect even people who I was good friends with. I have met some of these people in person and the thought that I may have even been in a room with this person at one point made me feel so uneasy. I would put a brave face on it. After all, it was all happening online, not “real life”. But in reality, it really got to me. This person was smart. They had clearly done as much research they could on me to find what my weaknesses would be from things I had posted online. Over Christmas, I turned off my computer so it wouldn’t get to me during a time I should be happy. I could have by that time thrown the laptop away and never gone online again. This person was winning.
When you are targeted by abusive messages online, you are stuck on where to turn. The only advice websites I could find were aimed at teenagers being bullied. I couldn’t really report it to the message board as they didn’t have anything to do with them as it wasn’t taking place on their board. I contacted my email provider who said I needed to contact the email provider of the person sending abuse. So I did and sure enough, they told me that I needed to contact my own email provider. I finally got one of them to agree to look into it. Nothing really happened as a result. I still kept getting the emails but from different addresses. The police are always a last resort but even if you get a willing officer to listen, you soon learn their hands are badly tied. Even in a case as bad as mine was, if an abuser for example is from another country, there is not a lot they can do and many people who do get to the point they have to report it usually end up having to be told there is little that can be done to get this person. They have no choice but to rely on the companies that provide our internet access, email accounts, social networking, and blogs to assist them in taking action and preventing extremely abuse. It becomes a game of finger pointing between the police and the service providers.
With the growth of internet forums, chat rooms, and social network sites now spreading all over the world, why is no one looking into protecting their customers from people like this? There are regular stories in the media about sites such as Facebook and Twitter for example refusing to help customers receiving abusive messages claiming as they are US companies, they have to observe free speech. I am pretty sure that when they were writing the Bill of rights, it wasn’t meant to protect the right for anyone to post fake profiles of innocent people advertising them as sex workers and to set up groups that are aimed to antagonise parents who have lost children to terrible diseases. Only recently I messaged Twitter on behalf of someone else receiving some extremely abusive tweets over their appearance, telling them they were “so fat, they should kill themselves” only to be told in these exact words “name calling is not a violation” (of Twitters terms and conditions). Would it honestly infringe free speech that much to say “Please don’t tweet inflammatory messages”? Will there be riots in the streets because one website says no to trolling or abuse of their customers?
When it gets seriously personal and finds its way into your inbox, you expect to be more protected. After all, this is your email. There is software designed to protect you from spam and viruses leaving it a place to hear from loved ones, friends, and work colleagues. When someone threatens you, you hope for it to be acted on but in reality, you are limited as everyone points the finger and argue over whose responsibility it should be to help you and for many people, it is so exhausting having to keep fighting with everyone to get the mess sorted, you want to give in. For me, it was never just a case of just changing my email as this person had started targeted me through other channels online when they felt they were not getting a response. Do I delete everything? Do I stop communicating with people full stop? Surely that means they win and another victim is selected. It’s no win.
I do not believe in censorship online. I never have. However there is a HUGE difference between the exchange of ideas and emailing threats. Sadly the companies that provide our services refuse to see this difference. Until these companies start to take more responsibility for their customer safety and stop making excuses not to take action and help customers and the police across the globe, we will continue to struggle to help victims of abuse over the internet.
My email problem is solved. The person was eventually uncovered and it is now a resolved issue between me and their family. At the end of the day, it wasn’t a dangerous person intent on doing me any real harm but a rather ill person whose family were shocked that they had been using the internet to get out their own frustrations in an unhealthy way, unable to realise how far they had gone. Despite every horrible thing this person did, I couldn’t help but feel so bad for them and their family who clearly had been having problems with their loved one’s emotional state and I forgave them. It’s a closed matter now and when people ask, I say it’s done and dusted. But it was sheer luck for me. I realise how extremely fortunate I am. Most people being abused online never get any answer end up having to give up using things online we take for granted such as personal websites, Skype to talk to friends, and online support communities that provide many people with a support network they couldn’t otherwise have. If the companies that provide us with our internet, emails, and websites began to protect their customers, maybe more people who find themselves targeted by these cowards will be able to sleep better at night.
Things you can do to resolve online harrassment
Keep your privacy online to prevent too much information about you online. Keep separate accounts for people you meet online and close family and friends and put strict security settings on the latter.
Save every abusive email you get. Print it off if you can but still keep a copy in a file on your computer.
Go through the right channels. Don’t immediately think of the police unless you are in danger. Contact the email provider of the messenger, your forums’ moderators, or customer services first. If anything, it shows you tried to deal with the problem. Again keep copies of your emails sent and received.
Never reply to abusive messages. It’s what they want. Any form of response will only encourage them.
Warn friends not to accept messages claiming to be you from new accounts.
Remember you have done nothing wrong. You are not a bad person and you didn’t invite this. People get targeted for the most random reasons.
Stay calm in replying to unhelpful service providers. You get more out of them by being nice but firm rather than ranting.
Contact your local Citizen Advice Bureau to find out what your rights are.