Internet harassment – also known as cyber-bullying – refers to the malicious use of technology to willfully and deliberately harass or harm another individual or entity. Internet harassment can be an incredibly scary experience for victims, especially if you know or are acquainted with the offender who is harassing you. Unfortunately, the law is intrinsically behind technology, so there is currently no centralized law enforcement agency to which you can report Internet harassment. However, cyber-bullying is a federal crime, and there are ways to report Internet harassment if the offender refuses to stop.
If you are in imminent fear of your and/or your family’s life, call 9-1-1 to report the harassment immediately.
Determine if you are a Victim
Determine if you are a victim of Internet harassment. The lines between genuine cyber-bullying and general nuisance is blurry, so it can be difficult to substantiate a claim of Internet harassment. If someone is threatening you with violence and you genuinely fear for your safety and well-being, you may meet the criteria. It is important to note that hacking, cyber-spying and cyber-stalking are not forms of Internet harassment. The first two are not necessarily criminal activities, depending on the nature of the offender’s behavior, and the latter is a separate crime defined by the Federal Anti-Cyber-Stalking Act that should be reported and addressed differently than Internet harassment.
Try to Reduce Further Harassment
Do what you can to reduce or prevent further Internet harassment from occurring. This includes changing your email address, screen names and member names for instant messaging programs and social networking websites, privatizing profiles and websites that are currently public and ceasing all contact with the person who is harassing you. You must demonstrate that you have taken steps to stop the person from harassing you. If you converse with the individual who is harassing you, your chances of reporting and stopping Internet harassment with significantly drop.
Gather as much information as you can about the individual harassing you. This can prove to be quite difficult given the anonymous nature of the Internet, but technology allows law enforcement to track down anonymous bullies via multiple methods. Develop a log that includes emails addresses, screen names, website and social networking profile URLs that belong to the person harassing you. Save and print emails and conversations, create “screen grabs” or screenshots of websites or profiles with threatening or malicious content and keep track of every attempt at contacting you the offender makes. A detailed log containing dates, times and places will help you immensely when you report Internet harassment. If possible, also try to locate and write down the offender’s Internet Protocol (IP) address.
Contact Law Enforcement
Contact your local law enforcement agency and ask to report Internet harassment. Use the police department’s non-emergency (administrative) telephone number or visit in person to make your report. Be prepared to provide information you previously detailed in your log; if you make the report in person, bring along two copies of every document you have to leave with the police. If you know the offender’s location, you can contact his local police department or make a report with both precincts, instead. Be sure to get a copy of any police report you file.
Contact the FBI
Contact your local FBI field office if your local police department is unable to or disinterested in pursuing your report. You can locate your local office using the FBI’s field office locator online, or ask you local police department for the information. Always attempt to make a report with your local police department first before you try to contact the FBI, unless you have reason to believe the harassment is terroristic (for example, the offender is threatening to plant a bomb or commit a school shooting) in nature.
Contact a Harassment Watch Group
Contact an Internet harassment watch group for more assistance. While your matter is under investigation, you can contact an organization such as WiredSafety or Stop Cyber Bullying for further assistance and general support. Note that these agencies are not governmental or law enforcement agencies and you should not rely on these groups as an alternative to your local law enforcement authorities.
Carrie Ferland is a practicing civil litigation defense attorney in the Philadelphia Area. As an author, her work has been featured in various legal publications for over 10 years. Ferland is a 2000 graduate of Pennsylvania State University and completed her Juris Doctorate and Master of Business Administration with the Dickinson School of Law. She is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in English.