Ep. 15: How to Stay Safe Online

So today we’re talking all things “cyberstalking”. It’s honestly not a super popular topic but happens more often than not each year as technology advances. I’ve got a few survivor stories to share with you that will really shed light on the importance of staying safe online. 

Are you guys ready? Let’s jump in! 

Cyberstalking is not just the typical stalking situation that comes to mind. It includes online bullying, identity theft, and extremely harmful technology abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 6 women will be stalked in her lifetime. That’s pretty much 1 in every group of women at the office or of your closest girlfriends. 

When I was doing research for this episode, I honestly felt like there weren’t a ton of resources out there despite this being such a frequent occurrence, so that’s why I’ve got some good tips to share with you guys today that can hopefully help keep you from finding yourself in a scary cyberstalking situation! 

Here’s What We Know: 

According to research from Thought.co–More than one million women and 370,000 men are stalked annually in the United States. One in twelve women and one in forty-five men will be stalked in their lifetimes. The average duration of stalking is nearly two years and even longer if the stalking involves intimate partners. How scary is that? 

A few facts about the identity theft side of cyberbullying are even more terrifying. 9.3 million Americans were victims of identity theft and the number continues to rise each year. Identity theft is often present in situations of domestic abuse and can become a form of economic abuse once the woman has left her partner. I’ve NEVER thought of that being an issue but now I completely see how it’s been used in these cases. It’s TERRIFYING to think about, you guys. 

National figures show victims of cyberstalking tend to be females during the college ages 18-29 but women are not the only targets. A survey of 765 students at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania found 45% of stalkers to be female and 56% to be male. National figures show most stalkers to be male by overwhelming margins (87%). Men represented over 40% of stalking victims in the Penn-Rutgers study. So while this isn’t isolated to just women victims, men are also targeted at times. But, they’re also nationally known to be the creepers in most cases. Sorry guys–hate to throw you under the bus but facts are facts. 

Cyberstalking is especially scary in domestic abuse situations because it provides easy and cheap tools for abusers and creeps to locate women who have tried to move away or go into hiding. It creates a way to continue to maintain control and instill fear into their partner, even after they’ve broken up. Seriously, chills. 

Marsha’s story: 

Marsha was an accountant, a working mom with kids, and after her husband, Jerry’s anger and rage moments got REALLY bad and worse and worse all the time. So, she decided it was time for a divorce. She told him in the safety of the lawyer’s office, where terms for their separation were laid out. To say he was angry was an understatement, he vowed right then he’d “make her pay.”

This threat became a reality a few days later when she went a couple of days later to buy groceries. When all her credit cards were politely and embarrassingly declined, she found out that Jerry had canceled them and her cell phone, and completely drained her bank accounts, literally leaving her with just fifty cents to her name. She was forced to get a loan from her family to make it to the next court date.

Jolene’s Story: 

The first federal prosecution of cyber harassment in the United State was actually back in June 2004 when 38-year-old James Robert Murphy from Columbia, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to two counts of Use of a Telecommunications Device (the internet) with Intent to Annoy, Abuse, Threaten or Harass. According to investigators, Murphy was sending anonymous and uninvited emails to Seattle resident Joelle Ligon and to her co-workers as early as 1998. Murphy and Ligon had dated on and off from 1984-1990. As time went on, the harassment increased and along with dozens of obscene emails each day, Murphy also began sending sexually explicit faxes to Ligon and her co-workers.

When Ligon moved to different states and changed jobs, Murphy was able to track her through malware he had placed on her computers and continue his attack. For over four years Ligon tried to ignore the messages by deleting them, but Murphy began making it appear that Ligon was the one sending the sexually explicit materials to her fellow workers.

He even went as far as to create special email programs in order to hide his identity and he created the “Anti Joelle Fan Club” (AJFC) and repeatedly sent threatening emails from this alleged group.

Ligon decided to start collecting the materials as evidence and went to the police who enlisted the help of the Northwest Cyber Crime Task Force, composed of the FBI, United States Secret Service, Internal Revenue Service, Seattle Police Department, and Washington State Patrol. 

She also managed to identify Murphy as the person harassing her and she obtained a court order barring contact. When Murphy emailed her, denying that he was harassing her, he violated the court order. Murphy was indicted in April 2004 on 26 counts of sending harassing emails and other violations between May 2002 and April 2003.

At first, Murphy pleaded innocent to all charges, but two months later and after a plea agreement was reached, he pleaded guilty to two of the violations.

The judge imposed 500 hours of community service and also sentenced Murphy to five years of probation and more than $12,000 which was to be paid to the City of Seattle to compensate the City for 160 hours of work time lost by employees dealing with the harassment.


It used to be that news reports such as like Jolene and Marsha’s stories were rare, but with the increase of people managing several aspects of their lives online, it has created a vulnerability that attracts creepy criminals including cyberstalkers, blackmailers via webcams and identity thieves.

Here’s what to do if you are threatened

Many victims of cyberstalking do like Joelle Ligon did when Murphy first harass her, she ignored it, but as the threats grew she sought help. The importance of sharing this episode is to arm you with tips so that should you EVER feel threatened, you can have an idea of what you need to do and what your next steps should be. 

And, hope isn’t lost when it comes to responses to reports of victims. 61 percent of the reported cases resulted in the social networks shutting down the accounts of the offenders and 44 percent of reported cases to law enforcement resulted in an effort to track down the offender. Again, these numbers continue to increase each and every year. 

  • Threats should never be ignored – report it. Keeping a record of the date and time of the threat, a screen shot, and hard copies is evidence. It not only can help authorities, social networks, ISPs and website host figure out the identity of the offender, but it also helps prove the level of the harassment which is the deciding factor on if, or if not, a complaint gets investigated.

It’s no question that social media does make it easier for a stalker or cyberstalker to locate and track a potential victim’s every move. Personal tidbits collected over weeks, months and even years often add up to a whole picture of who you are, where you work, live and socialize, and what your habits are — all valuable information to a stalker. So you HAVE to be careful with what you’re sharing online. The best way to protect yourself is to not make yourself vulnerable in the first place. Whenever you engage in social media, remember this: what happens on the internet stays on the internet, and it’s up to you to make sure what appears in connection with your name and image does not have the potential to harm you now or in the future.

  • There’s NO such thing as private on the internet. Whatever you post, tweet, update, share — even if it’s deleted immediately afterwards — has the potential to be captured by someone, somewhere, without your knowledge. This is especially true of social networking sites including private messages shared between two people and postings to a private group. In the world of social media, anything you put up can potentially be grabbed, copied, saved on someone else’s computer and mirrored on other sites — not to mention hacked by thieves.
  • Be cautious about using geo-location services, apps, or any method which shares where you’re at. Carrie Bugbee — who is a social media strategist — was simply having fun using location services until a cyberstalking incident changed her mind. One evening, while dining at a restaurant she had “checked in” at using an app called “Foursquare”, Bugbee was told by the hostess that there was a call for her on the restaurant’s phone line. When she picked up, an anonymous man warned her about using Foursquare because she could be found by certain people; and when she tried to laugh it off, he began verbally abusing her. 
  • Separate Work and Family Keep your family safe, especially if you have a high profile position or work in a field that may expose you to high-risk individuals. Some women have more than one social networking account: one for their professional/public lives and one that’s restricted to personal concerns and only involves family and close friends. If this applies to you, make it clear to family/friends to post only to your personal account, not your professional page; and don’t let the names of spouses, children, relatives, parents, siblings appear there to protect their privacy. 
  • Be cautious of tagging. Don’t let yourself be tagged in events, activities or photos that may reveal personal details about your life. If they show up, delete them first and explain later to the tagger; better safe than sorry. You can always set this up in your settings on Facebook to make sure you approve any tags in advance before they show up on your feed. 
  • Think before you share your birthday online. If you must share your birthday, never put down the year in which you were born. Using the month and day are acceptable, but adding the year provides a HUGE opportunity for identity theft.
  • Keep track of your privacy settings and check them on a regular basis. Do not assume that the default setting will keep you safe. Many social networking sites are frequently changing and updating their settings so often the defaults tend to make public more information than you may be willing to share. 
  • Tell Grandma to call you rather than posting on your wall. She could get confused and share not-so-private information you’d rather not have out there to the online world. Often, relatives who are new to social media don’t understand the difference between public and private conversations and how they take place online. 
  • Be careful with apps. Online games, quizzes and other social apps tend to connect and gather your private information to get logged into your account. Make sure that you know the guidelines of any app, game or service and do not allow it unfettered access to your information. 
  • Don’t accept creepers as friends on your social platforms. Never accept a friend request from someone you don’t know. This may seem like a no-brainer, but even when someone appears as a mutual friend of a friend or several friends, think twice about accepting unless you can concretely identify who they are and how they’re connected to you. In many professional circles involving large organizations, all an “outsider” has to do is obtain one friend on the inside and it snowballs from there, with others thinking that a total stranger with no personal connection is an unfamiliar co-worker or occasional business associate.

Social media is obviously fun and we all use it on a daily basis –but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to protecting your personal information. The goal of social networking sites is to generate revenue and even though the service is free, there’s the hidden cost of your privacy. 

It’s ultimately our own responsibility to keep tabs on what we put out there to the online world to limit our exposure and protect ourselves. So have fun–but be safe online! And when in doubt–report ANY threats you receive. It’s ALWAYS better to be safe and alive.  




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