Online Friends, Strangers and Stalkers IMG 01

Online Friends, Strangers and Stalkers

Web Development inMotion

Volume 20, Issue 3 May/June 2010 | Download PDF

by Kim Phillips

The advent of social media opened up a new world, allowing people to reconnect with old friends and share stories and pictures of their lives. Services like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter provide immediate knowledge of people’s plans, actions, interests, pictures, needs and desires. Wiki.com currently lists 177 social networking sites, ranging from general forums to sites with specific topics like games, photo sharing, and blogging. Social networking, by its very nature, encourages the sharing of personal information, but sometimes information that people think is private is actually visible to complete strangers, and this unfortunately poses risks to online users.

First and foremost, the more information you provide, the easier you are to find.

Parents have learned how to protect children from online dangers and can now monitor their surfing habits, favorite links,friends lists and the information they give out, but what do adults do to protect themselves? Adults may not realize that they, too, need to protect their online privacy.

The Less Said, the Better

First and foremost, the more information you provide, the easier you are to find. For example, if on Facebook you use your real name and list your city and state, a person might be able to gain access to your address and phone number using Web sites like WhitePages.com, even without access to your full profile. If you don’t choose the right privacy settings for your photos, then you might also expose yourself to strangers. Photos you post of you and your family, your house or your social life might give the wrong person just enough information to identify you or find your house. If you’re an amputee and mention it in your profile, a devotee can find you with a simple search. A skilled computer user can follow you from social networking sites to groups you’re involved with, to your homepage, to your e-mail or other contact information. This behavior is classified as stalking.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics study, 3.4 million Americans identified themselves as victims of stalking during a 12-month period in 2005 and 2006. While the most common stalking behavior reported was unwanted phone calls, one in four victims reported that some form of “cyberstalking” was involved, such as e-mail (83 percent) or instant messaging (35 percent).

How to Protect Yourself

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Web site (privacyrights.org) offers a fact sheet titled “Are You Being Stalked?” It contains definitions, resources and tips for dealing with stalkers/cyberstalkers, such as the following:

  • Set your profile to “Private.” With some social networking sites, this might entail just checking a box. With others, such as Facebook, it can be a multi-step process.
  • Limit how much personal information you post to your account. For example, you should not include contact information, birth date, city where you were born or names of family members.
  • Do not accept “friend requests” (or “follow requests”) from strangers. If you recognize the individual sending the request, contact him/her offline to verify they sent the request.
  • Warn your friends and acquaintances not to post personal information about you, especially contact information and location.
  • Don’t post photographs of your home that might indicate its location. For example, don’t post photographs showing a house number or an identifying landmark in the background.
  • Use caution when joining online organizations, groups or “fan pages.” Never publicly RSVP to events shown online.
  • Use caution when connecting your cell phone to your social networking account. If you do decide to connect your cell phone to your online account, use extreme caution in providing live updates on your location.
  • Avoid posting information about your current or future locations or providing information a stalker may later use to zero in on your location, such as a review of a restaurant near your house.
  • Always use a strong, unique password for every site.
  • Final tip: Remember, you most likely will not know if your stalker has accessed your online social networking account. Only post information that would not expose you to harm if your stalker should read it.

The reality is that both cyberstalking and physical stalking can lead to a physical attack. Always get help quickly, document all stalking incidents and take precautions to protect yourself.

Your Private Information and the Amputee Coalition of America

People may not be aware of the ACA’s Confidentiality Policy. It is listed on the final page of all issues of inMotion. It begins: “The Amputee Coalition of America (ACA) has a strict policy of confidentiality for all individuals on the ACA database and mailing lists.” As an ACA member, you never have to worry about the privacy of your information and demographics.

The ACA’s peer support program provides one-on-one support to amputees and their families. Visits by an ACA-certified peer visitor may be conducted in person, by phone or e-mail. While face-to-face meetings are considered ideal, some prefer the anonymity, convenience or control that comes with a phone call or an e-mail. Many individuals live in remote areas where there are few, if any, peer support opportunities.

Susan Tipton, ACA’s outreach program coordinator, assures personal information is not provided without permission. “When someone requests a peer visit from the ACA, we get their permission to share their information with a peer visitor,” she says. “Then we call the peer visitor and ask them to call that person. It is then up to the person requesting the peer contact what information they wish to share with the peer visitor.”

If you receive a phone call or an e-mail from someone who purports to have received your phone number or e-mail address from the ACA and you have not requested a peer visit, please contact us with that information.

A portion of this article was reprinted with consent of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.