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What Is Cyberstalking/Online Harassment

Although online harassment and threats can take many forms, cyberstalking shares important characteristics with offline stalking. Many stalkers - online or off - are motivated by a desire to exert control over their victims and engage in similar types of behavior to accomplish this end. Given the enormous amount of personal information available through the Internet, a cyberstalker can easily locate private information about a potential victim with a few mouse clicks or key strokes.

The fact that cyberstalking does not involve physical contact may create the misperception that it is more benign than physical stalking. This is not necessarily true. As the Internet becomes an ever more integral part of our personal and professional lives, stalkers can take advantage of the ease of communications as well as increased access to personal information. In addition, the ease of use and non-confrontational, impersonal, and sometimes anonymous nature of Internet communications may remove disincentives to cyberstalking. Put another way, whereas a potential stalker may be unwilling or unable to confront a victim in person or on the telephone, he or she may have little hesitation sending harassing or threatening electronic communications to a victim. Finally, as with physical stalking, online harassment and threats may be a prelude to more serious behavior, including physical violence.

While there are many similarities between offline and online stalking, the Internet and other communications technologies provide new avenues for stalkers to pursue their victims.

The anonymity of the Internet also provides new opportunities for would-be cyberstalkers. A cyberstalker's true identity can be concealed by using different ISPs and/or by adopting different screen names. More experienced stalkers can use anonymous remailers that make it all-but-impossible to determine the true identity of the source of an e-mail or other electronic communication.
 
Anonymity leaves the cyberstalker in an advantageous position. Unbeknownst to the target, the perpetrator could be in another state, around the corner, or in the next cubicle at work. The perpetrator could be a former friend or lover, a total stranger met in a chat room, or simply a teenager playing a practical joke. The inability to identify the source of the harassment or threats could be particularly ominous to a cyberstalking victim, and the veil of anonymity might encourage the perpetrator to continue these acts. In addition, some perpetrators, armed with the knowledge that their identity is unknown, might be more willing to pursue the victim at work or home, and the Internet can provide substantial information to this end. Numerous websites will provide personal information, including unlisted telephone numbers and detailed directions to a home or office. For a fee, other websites promise to provide social security numbers, financial data, and other personal information.