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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / A Guide to Cyberstalking

A Guide to Cyberstalking

How to combat an abuser who’s gone online to stalk and control a victim

An abuser stalks a victim through her smart phone

Cyberstalking is the misuse of technology to harass, stalk or threaten an individual. It can also be referred to as cyberbullying or cyberharassment. Perpetrators can target all ages and genders, though young people are more at risk through the various social media channels that cater to their demographic. Most people know their cyberstalkers—an ex-partner, a friend, a family member, a coworker. Cyberstalkers want to get the attention of their victim by any means necessary.

It’s important to take cyberstalking just as seriously as one would take stalking in the outside world, as it can cause severe distress, psychological damage and even an increased risk of suicide in young people. According to research, children and young people under 25 who are victims of cyberbullying are more than twice as likely to self-harm and enact suicidal behavior.

Cyberstalking can also escalate into in-person forms of abuse and violence. 

The Intent of Cyberstalkers

Those who choose to stalk or harass a victim online may be doing so for one or more of the following reasons:

  • To demean, embarrass or scare someone.
  • To track someone’s whereabouts without them knowing. 
  • To try and “win back” an ex-partner through coercive efforts or threats. This is often seen with abusive ex-partners after a survivor has separated from them.
  • To damage a person’s reputation.
  • To get someone fired from a job or kicked out of school, sometimes as a form of financial control.
  • To make unwanted sexual advances.
  • To steal someone’s identity or impersonate them online.

Being a victim of stalking in the outside world is frightening, but we often feel a sense of safety once we get home and are able to lock the door behind us. Cyberstalking allows an abuser to circumvent physical barriers and invade a victim’s life from a distance. Cyberstalkers are well versed in hiding on the internet as well as covering their tracks, making reporting and prosecuting cyberharassment challenging. 

What Does Cyberstalking Look Like?

Online abuse can take many forms. It may look like:

  • Defamation: An abuser posts lies about an individual in an attempt to disparage his or her character.
  • Doxing: An abuser posts an individual’s private information, including full name, address, date of birth or social security number with the intent of harassing the individual or opening them up for others to commit crimes against them.
  • Financial abuse: With online banking and electronic bill pay, an abuser might take financial abuse to the Internet by interfering with an individual’s accounts, changing passwords, denying access to finances or even identity theft.
  • Harassment: Social media offers abusers a multitude of new ways to harass victims via private message, voice calls and public posts.
  • Google bombing: In this tactic, the perpetrator uses optimization to cause defamatory content to rise to the top of search results when someone Googles the victim’s name.
  • Online impersonation: This is when an abuser creates a fake account or hacks into a victim’s account and sends messages that appear to be coming from the victim. Often the messages are disparaging or defamatory in nature. Or, they may be used to cause turmoil between the victim and a third party. In extreme cases, abusers post fake prostitution ads or rape fantasies inviting individuals to the victim’s home for sex.
  • Revenge porn: An abuser shares intimate photos or videos of a sexual partner that were obtained with or without consent during the relationship or when the abuser hacked into the victim’s computer, phone or online document storage.
  • Stalking: Abusers tracking the victim’s whereabouts through online “check-ins” or by installing GPS tracking on the victim’s phone and monitoring the location hits.
  • Threatening: This tactic is as old as time, but can now be done behind a veil of secrecy. Internet threats aren’t always taken seriously by online platforms or law enforcement but they do cause real anxiety in victims.
  • Unsolicited pornography: This occurs when an abuser sends unwanted pornography to a victim or posts it online, such as in an open-forum comment. It also includes sexualizing a photograph of the victim and posting it online.

You can read more about cyberstalking tactics on Women’s Media Center. Keep in mind, cyberstalking is not just limited to your phone and computer—some perpetrators have the ability to hack into smart home devices and monitor, harass or scare victims that way. 

Is Cyberstalking Illegal?

While stalking is illegal in all 50 states, the specific nuances of each stalking law vary, including how cyberstalking is described. Luckily, the Violence Against Women Act enacted a cyberstalking amendment to the federal criminal provisions against stalking in 2013, allowing for electronic communication that causes emotional distress to be recognized as a form of stalking.

What To Do If You’re the Target of Cyberstalking

Survivor Sheri Kurdakul is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit VictimsVoice, says stalking is one of the hardest crimes to prove. “There are ambiguous, often-times subtle tactics, and it crosses jurisdictions.” She adds, “While technology is moving ahead at lighting speed, the court systems and law enforcement are not.”

Blocking or deleting a stalker from your social media or email inbox is typically the first piece of advice, but “it doesn’t often work,” she says. “They’ll make another profile or work through other people.” The most important thing, she says, is gathering date- and time-stamped evidence like screenshots, call logs, text messages. That’s why Kurdakul created the VictimsVoice progressive web app which helps you create legally admissible chronological records to submit in court.

Here are other steps to take if you find yourself targeted by an online stalker:

  1. Don’t reply. Online or in-person, most stalkers thrive off engagement from their target. As tempting as it might be to send an angry all-caps text to leave you alone, don’t. It’ll only encourage the stalker to continue their communication. 
  2. If you feel in danger, don’t hesitate to call 911. This is especially important when children are the victims or the perpetrator has made threats to your safety or to their own life.
  3. Block the stalker. Block them on social media apps, on your phone to prevent texting and phone calls and send their emails to your Junk folder (it may be important to still access those emails for evidence). Though they may create an alias, this is a good starting point. 
  4. Report the stalker online. If the person is stalking you through a social media platform like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn or TikTok, report them to the administrators. Resist calling them out publicly as this falls under the above do-not-engage rule.
  5. Keep a log of all cyberstalking incidents. Record the date, time, and details of each incident, and keep screenshots or print-outs as evidence if possible. An easy way to do that is with the VictimsVoice progressive web app or one of these other apps. You can also print off an online stalking log here that will work just as well for cyberstalking. 
  6. File for an order of protection. Laws vary by state regarding order of protections, so depending where you live, it may be easier or harder to get one against a cyberstalker, but don’t let it deter you. 
  7. Change your passwords or profiles. If you suspect someone is impersonating you, breaking into your email or social media profiles, or hacking your smart home devices, change all passwords or start new accounts. Better yet, consider disabling or deleting those platforms, at least temporarily. 

How to Safely Be Online

Unfortunately, it’s not that difficult for a cyberstalker to access someone’s information online or hack into a smart device. If you’ve ever Googled yourself before, you know how much so-called private information can be found just by searching just a name. That’s why it’s important to take safety precautions any time you go online or add new technology to your life. Think of it as virtually locking your front door. 

  • Careful not to overshare. To be cautious, consider anything you put online to be public information, privacy settings or not. Think about what you post and whether or not a stalker could potentially use that as leverage. This includes your address, your children’s names, a picture of the front of your home or your car, where your kids go to school, your place of work, the fact that you just left for a week-long vacation. 
  • Monitor your children’s social media. Set up rules ahead of time to keep them safe—maybe it’s that you get to see their activity, messages or photos. Or their account is linked to yours. Consider times and places that technology can be accessed. Keep an open communication about why it’s important to be safe online and the dangers that exist. You may want to consider an app like Life360 or Bark to help monitor their online activity.
  • Hide your IP address. Cyberstalkers can use your IP address to access personal and personal data. Learn how to hide your IP address here
  • Turn off geotagging. When we take photos with our phone, metadata is embedded in the photograph with details including the date, time and exact location of where it was taken. Our phones are automatically set to have geolocation turned on and a lot of people don’t realize this. When we post the photo, a savvy enough person can access this geotag and find us. See details for how to turn off geotagging in “High-Tech Stalking Tactics.
  • Promote a business, not yourself. You might have to make a public profile if you have a business that needs an online presence. In that case, make sure your business is the focus, not you. Keep the business address private (secure a P.O. Box instead of listing a street address) and create an email address that doesn’t include your name. Keep your name and personal information off the page and don’t hesitate to use a plural “We” when talking about your company or product, even if you’re the sole employee. It will be less alluring for a stalker to harass an entire company than one person.
  • Pick a vague nickname. If you’re on a dating or other social app, pick a nickname that’s vague, not a spin-off of your real name or exact location. Same thing if you’re leaving comments on a message board or blog. Instead of “AndreainTopeka” choose something like “MidwestMom29.”

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What If You’re Still with an Abuser?

If you’re a victim of domestic violence who is still living with an abusive partner, extra precautions online should be considered, especially if you’re looking for information or help to escape. Try to use a computer that’s not your own, if possible, to research domestic violence or chat online with an advocate. Try the library, a friend’s house or your workplace. Disable texts and emails from popping up on your screen to avoid sensitive information being seen by an abuser. And keep in mind that a phone, even in airplane mode, can serve as a tracking device. If you’re fleeing an abuser, leave your phone behind. You can always get a new one later.

Remember: Any cell phone that can be turned on and has a signal can call 911, even when it is not activated and even if the account has lapsed due to late or no payment.

More Articles That Can Help

For more information on technology and its link to domestic violence, you may want to read one of these articles:

We've prepared a toolkit What Is Cyberstalking? to help you understand even more what cyberstalking is and so you can better assess and understand your situation.