Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When Stalking Goes Hi-Tech

by Robin Sax

Caller I.D., digital cameras, email, online bank accounts, pda’s, social networking websites
—all are forms of technology that we use in our everyday lives to communicate, be readily accessible, preserve memories, and simplify our lives. In today’s fast-paced world, these modern technologies have become more than convenient--they have become necessities.

Unfortunately, as with all things, there’s a flip side to these very handy devices. They can be used against us by people who wish to do us harm or—at the very least—create havoc in our lives. Tech-savvy criminals can turn our favorite timesavers into tools to stalk, harass, and harm us.

While stalking and harassment are neither new crimes nor a new phenomenon, with the growth and expansion of technology the criminal’s stockpile of weapons has expanded. They no longer need to rely solely on using the postal service, or sneaking around a victim’s home, or listening on land lines to commit their crimes. As recent studies by the
United States Department of Justice show, 78% of stalkers use more than one means to contact and harass their victims.

There is no greater consequence of the misuse of technology than in cases of
stalking and harassment. Here, the combination of a criminal’s arsenal of technological weapons and the criminal’s desire for aggression puts the victim not only in a compromising position, but in a potentially lethal one.

So what can victims or would-be victims do to protect themselves in our high-tech society?
Alexis A. Moore, a cyber-crime expert, boiled it down to her “Top 5” tips to protect ourselves from high-tech stalkers and cyberstalkers.

1. Do not rely on
caller ID when deciding to answer the phone. Caller ID spoofing is a common practice used by high-tech cyberstalkers to deceive victims into answering the telephone to harass and frighten them. Those relying upon their Caller ID systems should be aware that for a small fee anyone may go online and purchase Caller ID spoof technology. This enables them to program their Caller ID to reveal any number and name they wish. Stalkers often use familiar telephone numbers to trick the unsuspecting victim into answering the phone. Screen your phone calls allow the answering machine to pick up and then answer. By allowing the answering machine to pick up, the stalkers may leave a message that could later be used as evidence in a civil or criminal proceeding. If it’s an important call, the calling party will leave a message. Be sure you stay in control of your safety and security!

2. Password protects all accounts including utilities. Passwords protect all accounts that will allow for this additional privacy protection measure. Besides adding a password to your accounts, also request to have the agency/entity contact you if there are any changes made to your accounts, including requests for account closures, electronic funds transfers or account cancellations. These techniques are often utilized by stalkers to maintain control over their victims. It is not uncommon for stalkers who have gone high-tech to cancel their victim’s utilities and telephones, make electronic funds transfers from their bank accounts, and/or close/cancel credit cards. Today, anyone sitting behind a computer screen can access an unsuspecting victim’s accounts without the risk of being tracked.

3. Notify family, friends and co-workers to withhold information about you from any third party. High-tech stalkers using caller-id spoofs and other means may contact third parties under false pretenses to obtain vital information about the victim’s activities and whereabouts. Anyone who contacts a third party for information about a possible victim should be given no information at all! High-tech predators can use the phone, e-mail or may send third parties ruses such as class reunions or even floral deliveries to find out the victim’s whereabouts and activities. In some cases predators have pretended to be law enforcement officers! Always ask for a call-back number to verify the caller’s identity and always error on the side of safety and privacy first. A good motto is always “Less information is best”!

4. Maintain old e-mail accounts and phone numbers and create new ones. When under siege by a high-tech stalker or cyberstalker, keep old cell phone and e-mail accounts open. A victim of stalking should use an old cell phone number, knowing that the stalker may access their present phone records and known e-mail accounts. To thwart a stalker or potential stalker, call and e-mail contacts you don’t do business with, make appointments by phone with doctors’ offices you won’t be treated by, attorneys you won’t be consulting with. In this way, you are throwing obstacles in the stalker’s path and keeping your daily activities private. An evasive cyberstalker will try to learn the victim’s activities and schedule, including appointments, to manipulate and harass their victims. Remember, you are you own best privacy advocate!

Place credit freezes on all 3 credit bureaus: Today, without an identity change, it is often impossible for many to protect their credit and personal information from attack by a vicious high-tech stalker. . Stalkers often will apply for credit using the victim’s name to damage his or her credit rating. If this happens, contact the three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union, and place a security freeze upon their credit bureau accounts, Simply ask for their particular policies and procedures to place the freeze upon your credit. This will save you endless hours to repair their your if the stalker attempts to tamper with it. An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure!

And just to add to the list, I offer five more to chew on:

1) Protect your personal information. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have taken the world by storm. Always limit the personal information you put on your profile, pictures and messaging. Even if your profile is set to “private”, there is always a chance that tech-savvy criminals can get to you. Most of these sites have instant messaging capabilities, so there is really no reason to provide any additional contact information.

2) For both social networking sites and general emails, choosing a gender-neutral username can limit the amount of attention you receive. Cute, flirty or sexual usernames can easily draw the attention of a cyber stalker, or give online criminals the impression you are an easy target.

3) Avoid using a work computer or email account for personal use. If a cyber stalker uncovers the IP address used by a business, they can find out where you work.

4) PDA’s, cell phones, computers and email accounts all can be password protected. Locking these devices provides greater security for personal information should they ever fall into criminal hands. It’s also very important to choose passwords that will be difficult to guess or hack.

5) Online banking is another great modern convenience. But as online banking has grown, so have fraudulent websites and internet hacking. Always make sure that your online banking institution is legitimate and insured. The
FDIC website has more information on safe online banking.

To sum up, the best protection from internet crime comes from limiting the amount of personal information made available online. High-tech criminals can use anything from uploaded photos to an instant message with a friend to learn about their victim. Like many other innovations, our need for these technologies has flourished. Using these conveniences is perfectly fine so long as we take the right precautions to limit our risk.


FleaStiff said...

One problem that should be kept in mind is the use of GPS data loggers to track automobile locations and also a use of cell phones to send those GPS coordinates in real time to a stalker.

FleaStiff said...

Garage door openers broadcast a signal to a rather wide area and a nearby car can "grab" the signal and then later duplicate it.

Baby monitors broadcast a signal as well and usually lack any ability to encrypt their video images.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I worked as an investigative reporter in a past life so I'm painfully aware of how much personal information a persistent researcher can find about individuals. It's not at all a function of info being online - even when everything was done via paper, a trip to the county courthouse could easily identify lots of information that's useful to a stalker.

Also, no online source is nearly as informative for a stalker as the old fashioned approach of digging through their target's household trash.

However, I'd also suggest there's a price to be paid for living in fear and radically altering your lifestyle because someone is trying to scare or intimidate you.

For that reason, I'd suggest adding to this list of advice, and might even put it first on the list: Buy a gun, learn to use it, get a concealed carry permit, and if you're ever physically threatened - particularly in the home where (at least in Texas) the Castle Doctrine will protect you - blow the SOB to kingdom come.