Could you attract a cyberstalker or even have your identity stolen from information you posted to an online writer’s forum? Possibly.
Most States have laws against cyberstalking, but reports of online harassment are increasing, according to WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse), an organization with a mandate to educate the Internet community about online harassment, empower victims of harassment, and formulate voluntary policies that systems administrators can adopt in order to create harassment-free environments. Their website can be found at http://www.haltabuse.org.
Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America, with approximately 7,000 new victims in 2002 alone.
But, it’s not always easy to track down the culprits, as many victims have discovered.
Jim didn’t really pay much attention to what he posted to one popular writers’ group over the last few years. He’d seen many arguments get out of control and read numerous accusations about people posing as others. That all changed a few months ago.
“At first I thought I’d made the posts and forgotten. And then I thought I was imagining things when a string of new members on one of the boards all had very similar biographies to mine,” says Jim.
It wasn’t until people started complaining about e-mails Jim supposedly sent that he got really concerned. And then one day he went into a forum and saw his entire life posted. His online stalker had spent days gathering information from various writers’ groups, sometimes going through posts several years old.
“About the only thing that saved me from having my identity completely stolen was the fact that whoever this was got me confused with at least one other person, so the information was jumbled,” he says.
Jim has since been keeping records, of everything posted about him and has managed to obtain a list of IPs the individual posing as him uses. But he’s also deleted or abandoned most of his accounts and has assumed a new name and identity.
One of Jim’s biggest problems was that no one seemed to take his concerns seriously. People he had known and trusted for years would often join in and feed the cyberstalker his information. To so many people it’s just a game, until it happens to them, he points out. Two of the worst culprits included another writer who was also once a victim of a cyberstalker and a man whose website claims he has a background in federal security.
What can people do to protect themselves on the Internet?
First of all, don’t ever post to a site that allows anyone to join with no questions asked. Sites such as WritersWeekly.com are safer because they only allow people to sign up who are using their ISP e-mail address. At thewell.com, they will actually telephone prospective members to confirm they have provided accurate information.
Take this a step further and make sure the site is well-known and enjoys a good reputation. It would not be unthinkable for a cyberstalker to be the moderator of an online board – the very one you would be sending all of your information to for verification.
Never share any personal details with people you do not know, particularly on public forums, instant messenger systems and blogs. Even casually mentioning a local event or landmark can give someone enough information to track down your location.
Avoid using any form of your real name as your user ID and choose a name that will not indicate if you are a man or a woman.
For more suggestions on how you can protect yourself online visit, http://www.haltabuse.org/resources/im.shtml
George English is a citizen of earth and frequent traveler. His 9 to 5 is in a crowded office where he expresses his creativity with a keyboard and moans about how little money he earns. George decided to moonlight as a freelance writer last year, when he needed new tires for his car. His plan backfired and he realized his net earnings after taxes were less than they would have been had he not freelanced. George now rides a bicycle to work.