Archived article from the year 2000
"Your data has a social life too"

Harassment via email


Dealing with

Reading email headers

Complaining to a sender's ISP

Harassment menu


Online sexual harassment can be a problem for women using the Internet. It usual takes the form of a string of abusive or threatening emails sent by a man. It's best to avoid it by following safe procedures when contacting strangers on the Internet.

Avoiding harassment

As in real life, unbalanced and uncivilized men can cause problems for women on the Internet. The main issue is cyberstalking. This unpleasant word means harassment via email, sometimes including threats and obscenity.

Before getting into detail, it's worth mentioning right away that the best anti-harassment resource on the Internet is Women Halting Online Abuse (WHOA). They deal with around 500 complaints a day.

How the scenario starts

It usually begins with apparently innocent contact through a newsgroup, discussion group or chatroom. There are other possibilities, but these are the main areas where cyberstalkers hang out. As contact continues, the man develops a fixation and the tone of communication changes - it becomes threatening or otherwise unpleasant.

Other times they just launch in with abuse right from the word go. Something to do with smaller brains.

Avoiding the problem

1. Recognize the danger areas - anywhere on the Internet where you contact strangers.
2. Create a special email account for this kind of contact, using Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or a similar service. Don't include your name in the email address. Always assume that at some stage you will abandon this address.
3. Avoid giving away personal information, including your full name and your location. Be wary of mentioning local landmarks or activities that identify your precise location.

The transition to trust

Fortunately, the vast majority of strangers you meet on the Internet are trustworthy. The difficulty is sorting the wheat from the chaff. People have married through meeting on the Internet, and obviously at some stage they decided they trusted each other and exchanged information including full identities and locations in the real world. This process is the transition to trust, and clearly its rate of progress is down to your personal assessment of your correspondent. But there are a few rules worth observing.

Expect any reasonable man to give you his fully traceable personal details before you give yours. They must be verifiable and you should take the time to verify them.

An email address that includes a work domain, like johndoe@knowncompany.com is usually a good start. In this case type the domain (the bit after the @) into your Web browser and check that it brings up the Internet site of a reputable company, and that the company is not in the email address business itself (some companies offer email addresses to casual users). Make sure you use the address to see if it works. It's very easy for people to falsify an address when they send email, but very hard to receive mail sent to a company domain if you're not part of that company.

Lengthy discussions through a work email address might be a bad idea, but a short exchange is good for security. When I find myself exchanging many emails with somebody through my Yahoo account, I eventually slip in one brief email from work, then revert back to Yahoo. That way I've established my identity without any fuss.

An ISP-based email address on the lines of johndoe@aol-or-other-isp.com helps to establish identity but will need more research. You need to check the ISP on the Internet and make sure that it's a paid service. Free services (including Yahoo and Hotmail) don't check names and addresses so they're full of false user details.

Telephone numbers, names and street addresses are useful but not sufficient on their own. If you're given a work telephone number, find out the corresponding switchboard number and make your first contact through the switchboard. Remember, you're missing a lot of the information that you'd usually rely on to judge people in real life - body language, tone of voice, facial expressions - so the rules aren't the same.

If you don't get sufficient details to fully identify your correspondent, ask for more. Any man who quibbles about this is sending you a warning signal, "I am dumb, naive or unreasonable." Do you want to know this person better?

If he seems reasonable but just too nice to realize that there are bad people in the world, recommend this page to him. His response will tell you if you're right.

Cyberstalkers take great care to hide their real identities. Any man you correspond with who tries to hide theirs, gets slotted into that category until they make a clear effort to lift themselves out of it.

A final trick to watch out for is men masquerading as women. It happens, especially in chat rooms.

Dealing with harrassment

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