Eleven years ago I first connected to the internet. Suddenly I was exposed to a wealth of information, a brave new technological world that introduced me to seemingly interminable–and potentially dangerous–possibilities. At my fingertips was the ability to accumulate and consume data on most every conceivable subject. An alluring prospect for a voracious reader and avid learner, I was quickly enamored of this newfound realm that had suddenly opened up to me.
I was very intrigued with the concept of speaking with individuals from around the globe that I would have otherwise never met. To satisfy my curiousness, I began visiting message boards and chat communities, quickly developing a fondness for both. As I became more involved, my exposure to individuals from different parts of the country and the world increased. Many of these exchanges were casual and limited to public arenas. However, several developed into private conversations sustained through emails, instant messaging programs and, in certain instances, phone calls.
I had begun the process of introducing unnecessary drama into my existence by allowing such “friendships.” Empowered by their anonymity and a lack of immediate (if any) consequence, I encountered charlatans, liars, people who cloaked their true intentions with false kindness and semi-flowered phrases. One such individual began to assume my online identity, posting distasteful comments on message boards I used to visit. For good measure, he sent me a profane email with my first and last name in the address line.
There were other incidents, many of them involving persons who had constructed entirely false identities. Married people pretending to be single; parents denying the existence of their children; older women posing as younger ones; tall, tragic tales weaved to engender pity; fake photos.
Some among you have experienced this, or worse, in your online interactions. Yet there are cases that reach even greater extremes.
In September of 2008, 21-year-old David Heiss traveled from Germany to Nottingham, England, and brutally stabbed 20-year-old Matthew Pyke 86 times in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend of three years, Joanna Witton. Heiss had become obsessed with Witton after he had met her on a war gaming site that she and Pyke owned and operated. He would look at photographs of her on her Facebook page and send her messages professing his love despite her insistence that she was in a relationship. This, however, did not dissuade Heiss. He paid Pyke and Witton a couple of surprise visits at their home. Although Witton wanted to book a hotel room for Heiss, he insisted on sleeping at the foot of the couple’s bed.
Disturbed by his behavior, Witton subsequently blocked Heiss’s access to the gaming site. Unfortunately, her attempts at avoiding him were futile and on his last surprise visit, he murdered her boyfriend soon after she left their apartment that morning.
Yes, this is a severe and tragic example, there are many instances of cyber stalking that go unreported or are not covered by the national news. It is estimated that over one million women and four hundred thousand men are stalked annually–most of them on the Internet.
When you interact with a stranger online, you really do not know with whom you are dealing. Although you may feel safe sharing personal information following a series of chats and messages, you are placing yourself at risk. While some individuals have developed successful friendships and relationships through this electronic medium, these occasions seem to be the exception. Paranoia is not the answer but caution,even if it is erring on the side of it,is preferable.
What preventative measures can you take to protect yourself? If you are already being harassed by someone online, how should you handle the situation? Following are some suggestions.
*If you are having one-on-one conversations with a person you encountered online, disclose this to your family and friends. Be forthright with them regarding the nature of the relationship and disclose other pertinent information such as your friend’s email address, location, line of work, general background, etc.
*Recognize that in using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace, you are sharing more information about yourself than you may be aware of. Parry Aftab of wiredsafety.org says, “The Internet is a great place, but it is a vast billboard and don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t put on a billboard on Route 80.”
*When creating profiles, do not add any personal information. This includes photographs. Use a moniker that is gender-neutral.
*Use your primary email address only with people you know and trust. Otherwise, make accounts with Google, Yahoo, or the like for all other purposes.
*Do not share personal information on any company site until you have verified its trustworthiness.
*According to the Justice Department, most cyber stalking occurs in the form of unsolicited, undesired emails and instant messages. Whether you are being harassed in private or bullied on public forums, your first line of defense is to ignore the stalker. Do not encourage his behavior by engaging him in a flame war. Inasmuch as it is possible, block him from contacting you. Even if you sense that the situation will not escalate, make no assumptions. Retain all forms of communication as evidence. You may need it.
*If necessary, change your online identity and your Internet Service Provider.
*Take care not to reveal your location, whether directly or indirectly.
*If you are being cyber stalked and all other measures to diffuse the situation have proven futile, contact the authorities.
The internet can expand your world in significant and positive ways. As with any tool, there is the potential for abuse. Therefore, always remember that when you chat with someone–however friendly they may seem–you never know who is hiding on the other side of the monitor.