You Only Hack the Ones You Love - A cyberstalking primer

By Carl Weiss

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With Valentine’s Day right around the corner I thought I’d take the time to give all of our readers a little lesson on what can happen when that long lost love refuses to get lost.  What I am referring to is the all-too-common practice of cyberstalking.  Along with hacking, this technocrime is on the rise worldwide.  If you want to avoid being your significant other’s online punching bag, you need to take precautions before the bloom is off the rose if you hope to have a moment’s peace when your relationship hits the rocks.

If you perform a search of the newsfeeds you will find that cyberstalking is performed by all ages, races, sexes and economic brackets.  An equal opportunity nuisance, everyone from grade schoolers to senior citizens have been accused of the crime.  And let there be no doubt that since 1999 the act of cyberstalking has been considered a crime.  That was the year that California became the first state in the Union to pass a law specifically addressing cyberstalking.  The law itself was an outgrowth of legislation that has been on the books since 1913 that addressed harassment via telephone.  The chief difference between that and cyberstalking laws enacted since 200 is that it makes it illegal to use email or any form of electronic communication to threaten, abuse, annoy, embarrass or terrify another person.  These laws were further beefed up in 2009 with the passage of a cyberbullying law that protects minors from online harassment and intimidation.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that the successful prosecution and conviction of cyberstalking cases has been less than stellar.  That’s largely due to the fact that conviction requires proving intent to do harm which is often nearly impossible to prove in a court of law.  What can make prosecution of this cybercrime even more difficult is the fact that it is child’s play to use a false name or anonymous email address to mask a stalker’s true identity.  So even if you know who it is that is harassing you, good luck proving it.

How Do I Hack Thee?  Let me Count the Ways

Even worse is the fact that with the advent of technology, harassing texts and emails are only the tip of the iceberg.  Off the shelf software can provide an obsessed cyberstalker with the means to quite literally track your every move.  

A recent study from NPR stated that more than 85 percent of domestic violence shelters surveyed had victims who were tracked using GPS.

I Smell a RAT!  An even more insidious form of cyberstalking is referred to as ratting, where perpetrators use a Remote Access Trojan to commandeer the webcam on a laptop, tablet or cellphone in order to become an electronic peeping Tom. 
A newsfeed from stated that Rachel Hyndman, a 21-year-old student from Glasgow, who discovered she was being spied on in her home by an online Peeping Tom.  She noticed her webcam had switched itself on while she was in the bath. A hacker had accessed her computer via a RAT (Remote Access Trojan) virus which often appears in an email as an advertising mailout.  However, once downloaded it gives the sender control of the infected computer. If a digital stalker like Rachel’s has access to your computer they have the power to switch on your webcam to spy on you, operate your keyboard, view emails and access your personal files.”
While the article goes onto state that Rachel contacted an IT professional that helped her track the perpetrator down and scare him off, what most people don’t understand is that this is not a crime that is limited to male stalkers.  Far from it.
In a news story a little closer to home, ABC News posted a video that featured a St. Augustine, Florida resident Joe Goode whose life was turned upside down when he tried to break up with his fiancĂ©.  After hacking her way into his social nets and email accounts, she proceeded to send pornographic photos of Joe to his employers.  But that was only the start of the harassment.  Next she had him arrested not once but three times by doing everything from telling the cops that Joe was making harassing calls to using a voice morph app to record calls that purportedly came from him. (This cyberstalking trick is referred to as spoofing in the industry.)
Later Joe’s cyberstalker expanded her scope to include his new girlfriend (who was accused of child pornography) and even Joe’s landlord.  Coming back into the US after a brief vacation, Joe even gotdetained by US Customs after they receive an “anonymous tip” that he was smuggling drugs.
In a blog post on entitled Cyberstalking Worse Than Stalking, mental health researchers compared people who had been victims of stalking and those who had been victims of cyberstalking.  Their findings were surprising to say the least.
·         Victims of cyberstalking had to engage in more ‘self-protective’ behaviors, pay higher out-of-pocket costs to combat the problem, and experienced greater fear over time than traditional stalking victims.
·         Technology has changed what they call the ‘risk/exposure’ profiles for victims, making stalking easier and self-protection harder.
·         Technology in cyberstalking cases may be more harmful to the victim’s psychological well-being and reputation, thus more decisive in spurring quicker self-protective action,” said the researchers.
·         The study also revealed differences between age and gender of victims. In cases of stalking, approximately 70 percent of the victims were women, while female victims only represented 58 percent in cyberstalking cases. The average age for stalking victims in the sample was 40.8 years old, while cyberstalking victims averaged 38.4 years old.
The Best Defense
While many anti-stalking resources caution the public to avoid revealing too much of their personal lives online, this is not always a practical solution to someone whom you formerly knew and loved.  Let’s face it folks, lovers are way too far inside the wire for you to successfully employ passive defense measures.   Sad to say, but the minute you pull the plug on a love interest if you want to have some measure of cybersecurity, you need to initiate the following damage control sooner rather than later.
1.      Change your passwords on all your social nets and email accounts.
2.      Consider changing your phone number.
3.      Do not accept any emails or texts from a jilted lover.
4.      Do not open any attachment from anyone you do not know.
5.      Add additional security to your computer, tablet and smartphone.
While these measures are in and of themselves no guarantee that a scorned lover will simply walk away from a relationship, short of packing up and moving to another state, it is about as good as it gets.  Because like it or not, in this technological age many people  only hack the ones they love.
Below are some other resources you should check out if you think you are a victim of cyberstalking”
Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio