What is cyberstalking?

Fake social media accounts increasingly used by harassers to target victims

A woman using a laptop
People are also being terrorised via online channels including forums and email
(Image credit: Antonio Guillem/Alamy Stock Photo)

The growing problem of cyberstalking is in the spotlight after a man who created hundreds of fake social media accounts in order to stalk and harass people online was jailed for nine years.

Matthew Hardy, from Northwich in Cheshire, would “relentlessly message” his dozens of victims, “leaving them in constant fear that they were being watched and what would happen next”, reported the BBC.

The unemployed 30-year-old harassed at least 62 women over an 11-year period, making him “Britain’s worst cyberstalker” to date, according to The Guardian. But cyberstalking attacks are “on the rise”, added the paper, with calls to the National Stalking Helpline about such harassment increasing by 20% since the start of the pandemic.

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Internet tracking

Cyberstalking “can be defined as a malicious or obsessive following through internet presence”, cybersecurity expert James Bore told The Telegraph. “Stalkers track down and follow their victims through social media. They might even locate them in the real world, and try to contact them there.”

Stalkers may hack into the victim’s social media accounts, or create fake accounts in their victim’s name, to get information or spread lies about them. Online channels including emails and chat forums are being used to terrorise people too, as are other digital means such as text messages.

According to Cheshire Police, serial cyberstalker Hardy “created fake profiles on social media in order to befriend men and women across the UK and he would sometimes pose as friends or family in order to gather information about them that would cause embarrassment”, the BBC reported. “After gaining the trust of his victims, he would send them messages he knew were a lie in order to create rifts amongst their family.”

Cyberstalkers such as Hardy “are taking advantage of our increasingly digitised lives”, said The Guardian. Some “are using spyware, drones and even smart kettles and CCTV”.

Experts from the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire have warned that “other forms of pre-existing stalking can transfer into online environments”.

A 2015 study by the centre found that cyberstalkers are often “internet addicts who have lost touch with the real world”, reported Sky News. Psychologist Dr Emma Short, who co-authored the study, said that such behaviour “can be a consequence of internet addiction, so your cyberstalker’s ability to form normal healthy relationships is compromised”.

“That bit of your life starts breaking down and you become more invested in online relationships and more likely to become fixated on those,” Short explained.

Jail time

Harassment and stalking, whether in person or online, are classed as offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The maximum sentence for harassment or stalking is six months’ custody. But if harassment puts people in fear of violence or if stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm, the maximum sentence is ten years.

In December, a 44-year-old former soldier, Carl Davies of Flint in Flintshire, was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail after being found guilty of harassment for sending death threats to former BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin on social media. He also warned Minchin via Instagram that “your daughter will be raped”.

‘Never heals’

The crimes of cyberstalkers “cast a long shadow”, shattering many victims’ sense of safety, said The Guardian.

Abby Furness, a 22-year-old dancer from Brighton who was stalked by Hardy, said: “All I do now is worry. It doesn’t leave you. It’s like a cut that keeps getting deeper and deeper over the years. It never heals.”

People targeted by Hardy “lost friends, family members, relationships and professional opportunities” as a result of the stalking, the paper reported. “One terrified victim slept with a baseball bat in her hand”, while another “kept a samurai sword beside her bed”. Some “were diagnosed diagnosed with depression and anxiety and needed medication”.

And Covid-19 lockdowns “made it easier for stalkers to terrorise their victims”, said The Telegraph. The stalkers “had more time on their hands“ to “hunt their prey”, while many victims felt “more vulnerable” and “unable to access support” as a result of the enforced isolation.

“In the old days”, the paper added, stalkers “waited outside people’s houses”, but “now, via a computer, phone or tablet, they target victims inside their homes”.

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