What is cyberstalking? Signs, steps to take to protect your accounts

Millions of people become victims of cyberstalking each year, suffering harassment, threats or being tracked through their online accounts.

Victims say it leaves them feeling frightened and that their privacy has been violated.  It happens more often than you might think.

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"You know, there's financial and emotional and mental abuse, and this is just, you know, a new level of it that creates a lot of anxiety," said a woman whom we're calling "Jennifer."  

Jennifer asked us not to reveal her face or real name.  She described what she went through when she says she discovered someone was accessing her digital accounts.

"We're talking about social media, we’re talking about email accounts, we're talking about my work email accounts, a lot of my financial institutions," said Jennifer.

Jennifer says it gave her sleepless nights.

"It's incredibly unnerving, lots of anxiety," she said.

And it caused her to constantly check her accounts, she said, "to make sure that there wasn't money moved or there wasn't a charge that I didn't recognize, or there wasn't a post that got made to an account."

7.5 million people are victims of cyberstalking, according to the report Protecting Americans from Cyberstalking.  It's when a stalker uses online sites and apps to track, harass, or threaten someone with physical harm or what's called doxxing, the publishing of private information.

"They may post fake social posts that are disparaging or adverse. They may have illicit images associated with them, anything that they can do to disparage or harass," said Darren Guccione, CEO of password manager Keeper Security.

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Reports show 61% of cyberstalkers use tools including smartphones, text messaging, and email. Ten percent use malware or phishing emails and texts to hack into their victims’ accounts.  And 67% of victims know their stalker.

"They'll figure out where they're spending time on social media sites, what e-mail applications they use, and they'll either create new online accounts to target them or they'll gain access to the existing account," explained Guccione.

The signs of cyberstalking can be subtle.  They can include notifications of unusual logins or password reset requests, contact from online profiles that the victims may not realize are fake impersonator accounts, or people showing up in places victims' mentioned on social media.

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Jennifer reported the breaches of her accounts and took steps to lock them down.

"Because I took those measures to make sure that my information was secure, I'm able to rest easier at night," she said.

Here are steps you can take to protect your accounts:

  • Use strong passwords or a password manager, which constantly changes passwords to long, complicated versions
  • Use multifactor authentication on all of your digital accounts
  • Don't post personal information online, and make social media accounts private
  • Turn off location tracking on your phone and social media accounts
  • And scan your device for spyware or malware

If you believe you are a victim of cyberstalking, report it to local police, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, and the digital platform owner, such as your bank or social media site, which can take steps to further protect your account.  And change your passwords.