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How To Stop Online Harassment: Laws, Reporting, & What You Can Do

Reviewed for accuracy by Joseph Jones on April 29, 2021

If you are experiencing cyber harassment, stalking, or bullying, it can be difficult to know where to turn. You may be thinking: Am I actually experiencing online harassment? How do I report it? Can I sue someone or involve the police? Let’s go over what constitutes online harassment, and what to do if someone targets you on the web.

Harassment is generally defined as a repeated pattern of behavior intended to scare, harm, anger, or shame a targeted individual. Online harassment means these actions occur using digital technologies such as social media platforms, email or messaging services, gaming platforms, or cell phone communication. Examples of such behavior include:

  • Posting defamatory remarks intended to harm a person’s reputation
  • Publishing private, explicit, or manipulated photos
  • Sending threatening messages
  • Posting false information or impersonating someone online

Types and Examples of Cyber Harassment

Online harassment, or cyber harassment, includes various forms of online abuse such as cyberbullying, cyberstalking, online impersonation, doxxing (also spelled “doxing”), swatting, revenge porn, sextortion, and more. Many of these acts are considered crimes punishable under federal and state laws, depending on the specific behavior and the harm caused to the victim.

Examples of cyber harassment often take one of the following forms:

  • Hate speech is a common form of cyber harassment that involves offensive and discriminatory language or actions motivated by animosity toward aspects of identity such as race, religion, gender identity, etc. While there is no legal definition of hate speech, it’s characterized by the use of slurs, name-calling, and other forms of verbal abuse and can also be conveyed through images and memes on social media.
  • Cyberbullying is the intentional, repeated harm inflicted on a person or group through digital means, most commonly through social media platforms. Each state has its own laws regarding cyberbullying, including criminal and school sanctions.
  • Cyberstalking is another common example of cyber-harassment that involves targeted and repeated intimidation, threats, and harassment directed toward one person. It can include false accusations, defamation, and digital vandalism. In many cases, it is a crime that’s punishable under federal and state laws.
  • Online impersonation occurs when someone uses the identity of a person, organization, or brand without their consent and with the intention of damaging, intimidating, or defrauding others. Impersonation is very common in phishing schemes using fake social media accounts and can cause costly damage to a business.
  • Doxxing (or Doxing) is the act of revealing someone’s personal information online with the intention of harassing them. It is most common in the gaming and hacker communities but also affects celebrities, politicians, and journalists. Doxxing can range from a misdemeanor to a felony offense depending on the malicious intent and harm caused to the victim.
  • Swatting is an extension of doxxing where a bad actor fabricates a dangerous story to law enforcement about the victim (i.e. “This person is holding someone hostage at their house). Law enforcement, in turn, shows up in force at the victim’s residence. It is a crime that can result in severe legal consequences for the perpetrator.
  • Revenge Porn is the non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit images or videos of someone, usually by a former partner or spouse. It is a crime that is punishable under state laws and can lead to severe legal consequences for the perpetrator.
  • Sextortion is when an individual uses sexually explicit images or videos to extort or blackmail a victim. It often includes threats to share and distribute the content to the victim’s friends, family, or employer if they don’t comply with the perpetrator’s demands. It is a serious cybercrime that is punishable under federal and state laws.

We recommend exploring this resource from the Online Harassment Field Manual for an in-depth look into the different terms and crimes associated with cyber harassment.

Cyber harassment cases unfortunately often involve specific groups of people over others, namely women and people of color. In one study from the Pew Research Center, 50% of American women polled reported experiencing online harassment, compared to 30% of men. Additionally, 54% of all those who reported experiencing cyber harassment identified as Black, despite the fact that the Black community constitutes only 13.4% of the total American population. Hispanic persons have also indicated higher levels of harassment as compared to white persons.

What Can I Do If I Am Being Harassed Online?

Identify, document, and report incidents of harassment. First things first: what specific actions are you considering to be harassment? Is it repeated and severe? This step is important when it comes to reporting online harassment; companies or courts will need to know exactly what behavior has occurred and its effect on you. Next, start keeping track of every instance of abuse.

Document Everything

Luckily, digital media often leaves an overt trail of evidence. Posts are public, messages can be saved, and anything can be screenshotted. While your instinct emotionally could be to delete and ignore offending content, keeping records of the abuse will be key when attempting to get content taken down by social platform companies or if you choose to go to court.

Use screenshots to record incidents of harassment and keep them organized in preparation for taking action against the perpetrator(s). Additionally, make sure to also capture the URL of the account sending the offending messages. Justice will more easily be served if you can also report how the harassment is affecting your physical, emotional, and financial well-being. Keeping a visual record of harmful images, comments, or messages can also help you show evidence of harm without having to relive traumatic events verbally.

What many people don’t realize is that there are specific guidelines and requirements for submitting digital evidence in court. You need to be able to provide details such as metadata, hash values, times & dates, and other “behind the scenes” social media data. So do your best to document everything yourself, and consider hiring an investigative service that specializes in social media court case preparation to assist you.

Keep Yourself Safe

If you are being threatened online, you should stay vigilant in protecting your physical safety as well. Ask yourself: are you acquainted with the perpetrator of your online abuse, or is their identity unknown? If their identity is unknown, you can take steps to unmask them, but you should be aware that this process is often costly and time-consuming. If you know the person harassing you, consider the following red-flag questions:

  • Do they know personal details about you, such as where you live?
  • Have they made threatening comments? Are their threats specific? A specific threat may mention a time, date, or place where violence will occur.
  • Are their claims irrational or erratic? Do they have a history of violent behavior?

If any of the above statements are true, you may need to seek immediate help to maintain your safety. Find a place to stay where you feel protected, and enlist the help of friends or family who can support you as you navigate this situation. If the harassment is work-related, you may need to notify your employer of what’s going on. At this point, some victims may consider involving law enforcement or an attorney. The reality is, different law enforcement agencies and legal offices have varying levels of understanding of cybercrimes. We’ll discuss the legal and criminal consequences of online harassment later on in this article.

Increase Your Personal Cybersecurity

There’s a lot you can do to increase your personal cybersecurity and prevent online harassment from occurring. Generally, the more active you are online or the more you broadcast yourself on social media platforms, the more vulnerable you’ll be to abusers. Here are a few ways you can better prevent cyber harassment.

  • Check Your Privacy Settings – To discourage unsolicited comments and various forms of cyber harassment, make sure your social media accounts have privacy settings in place that limit your content to only permitted users.
  • Block and Un-Friend – When unwarranted comments do occur, be relentless in blocking or “unfriending” any individuals or accounts responsible for the harassment. This also includes harassing email addresses and phone numbers. But keep in mind you may want to collect evidence for legal matters before blocking.
  • Keep Personal Information Personal – Do not share personal information and details about yourself online, such as your address, phone number, place of work or school, credit card number, etc. This also includes sharing photos and videos that may be sensitive or revealing.
  • Bolster Your Passwords – Ensure your passwords are as secure as possible and avoid using the same password across multiple websites and platforms. We recommend using password managers to make this as easy as possible. Additionally, enable two-factor authentication when appropriate and keep personal and professional online accounts separate.
  • Utilize a Virtual Private Network – A virtual private network (VPN) is an Internet security service that uses encryption to create a secure connection, protecting users’ anonymity. While common in business settings, anyone can use a VPN to ensure details are protected, such as your IP address which reveals a lot about you.

The best measure against cyber harassment is to limit the information you make accessible online. You should avoid sharing any personal details and stay vigilant about revealing real-time data, like where you are and whom you’re with. Also, Google your name and assess what information shows up. You may be surprised at what data is publically available.  

What if My Child is Being Harassed?

If your child is the victim of any targeted attacks as described above, start a conversation about how it’s not okay and that there are ways you can help. As kids and teens spend increasing hours online every day, cyberbullying is a constant threat. In fact, nearly half of all tweens and teens report experiencing bullying online. Your child may not even recognize their experience as harassment or may be reluctant to share what’s going on with an adult.

Explore this resource from UNICEF on how to address cyberbullying with your child, and start taking steps to protect them from further abuse.

How Can You Stop Someone From Harassing You?

Every social media and online messaging platform has avenues for reporting and removing offensive content, and it is possible to take legal action against perpetrators of online harassment as well.

Block, Mute, Report

Working within the platform where the harassment took place is the first option available to respond to online abuse.

Block: You can silence perpetrators on most social media sites by blocking their account(s), which will prevent them from viewing your profile or communicating with you in any way. This can stop harassment on one site, but pervasive attackers may seek out other platforms or use fake accounts to continue targeting you. Keep in mind, if you are gathering information to take to law enforcement or a lawyer, blocking will prevent you from recording new harassment.

Mute: On some social media platforms, you can “mute” certain information or accounts, meaning it will no longer show up in your feed, search, or inbox. This differs from blocking in one important way: you are only preventing yourself from seeing content, and others on the site may still view defamatory or threatening posts. This does not affect the perpetrator’s ability to continue to harass you or others.

Report: You may report an account as violating a social media platform’s community guidelines in an attempt to get their posting privileges revoked, or at least have offending posts removed. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act prevents social media companies from being held liable for any comments or images posted using their service, so your best hope is to appeal to their internal policies for what may appear on their site. In the end, it’s up to their team to decide whether to respond. Each site has its own reporting process, and you can click these links to get started on Facebook, Instagram, Google, or Twitter. Unfortunately, many times they are slow to respond.

Helplines: If you are concerned for your mental health or need advice on what to do next, reach out to one of these helplines that provide free assistance for victims of cyber harassment.

What Will the Police Do About Online Harassment?

In general, the police will be most able to assist you if:

  • The perpetrator has published sexual images of you without your consent.
  • You have received true threats or specific threats of violence that name a time, day, or location.
  • The perpetrator has violated state or federal stalking laws.

Choosing to go to the police can be a difficult or intimidating decision for many people. Not everyone will feel comfortable involving law enforcement, and not all police precincts will have experience investigating and prosecuting cybercrimes. Ultimately, it is your decision whether or not you feel safe filing a report with the police. If you do choose to report online harassment as a crime, be prepared to be asked to provide evidence and describe your experience to officers or detectives.

Unfortunately, our experience across the United States has shown that it is rare for law enforcement to get involved or provide meaningful help when online harassment occurs.

What If the Police Can’t Help?

Another avenue to justice is enlisting the help of a legal team like Bosco Legal Services, who can help you seek justice and possible compensation for harm caused by an online harasser. Bosco is not a law firm, but rather an investigation agency specializing in tracking down the true identities of online bad actors. Bosco works in tandem with law firms across the United States who specialize in helping victims of cyber harassment receive justice.

Can You Sue Someone for Harassing You Online?

Yes, you may sue someone for civil wrongs (or torts) such as defamation, harassment, and public disclosure of private facts that have occurred online. The object of such cases is to compensate the victim for any “injury” resulting from the civil wrong and impose liability on perpetrators of harmful acts. Additionally, in certain circumstances, filing a lawsuit is a necessary step in unmasking fake accounts.

Cyber Harassment Laws

18 U.S. Code Section 2261A prohibits the federal crime of stalking and has been amended to include online actions to harass, injure, harm, or intimidate a person. State laws differ on what constitutes criminal harassment vs. civil harassment, and if you’re considering legal action you should explore your state’s legislation surrounding harassment and cyberstalking. This index of social media court cases provides an idea of the process and outcomes associated with torts and crimes committed online.

Before you agree to pay any fees to a lawyer, investigate whether you have grounds in your state to sue based on online behavior and what distinctions exist between criminal and civil cases. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative offers pro bono legal services to victims of cyber harassment and can provide guidance on your rights within your specific state.

What Do You Need To Go To Court?

In addition to keeping detailed records and screenshots of the harassment, you’ll likely need to work with a team that understands the regulations and laws requiring submitting content from social media as evidence in court as established by FRE 902(14). Suppose your abuser’s true identity is still unknown. In that case, you will need to determine exactly who it is you are suing using a service designed to uncover the people behind social media accounts. At Bosco, our cyber investigators use advanced search tools and analysis to locate the critical metadata, times & dates, and other data that the court requires to pursue a lawsuit. Learn more about social media investigations here.

What Is the Cost of Suing Someone For Online Harassment?

There are financial, emotional, and possible social costs for any case involving interpersonal harassment and abuse. If you’re considering taking legal action, prepare to be questioned about your experience and for details surrounding the harassment to be made public in court. Initial court fees for filing a civil suit can be anywhere from $400-$1,000, and fees to investigative teams and attorneys can often start between $5,000-$10,000 in online harassment cases. Victims of harassment should also be aware that proving cyber crimes in court using evidence from social media can be a tricky business, and not all cases will be successful.

Additional Online Harassment Resources

We have published additional online harassment resources that you can explore below:

At Bosco Legal Services, we offer comprehensive social media investigation services that give you the highest chance of success when pursuing a cyber harassment case in court. Explore our court resources for more information, or contact us to learn more about stopping online harassment.