Here are some simple tips to help you stay safe online. If you have been harassed or stalked online, please go to What To Do If You've Been Harassed Online and follow the instructions there. We've also provided some offline safety tips.
Any web sites mentioned below are only a sampling of the many available online. WHOA does not have any affiliation with these web sites and use them only as examples.
- Select a gender-neutral username, email address, etc. Avoid anything cute, sexual, diminutive, or overtly feminine.
- Keep your primary email address private. Use your primary email address ONLY for people you know and trust.
- Get a free email account and use that for all your other online activity. Make sure you select a gender-neutral username that is nothing like anything you've had before. There are many, many free email providers, such as Hotmail, Juno, Yahoo! and Hushmail. We suggest that you do a search using your favorite search engine and choose the email provider that best suits your own needs.
- Don't give out information simply because it is requested. Countless web sites ask you to give them your full name, date of birth, address, phone number, email address, etc. when you might just want to search their catalogs or read messages on a discussion forum. Give as little information as possible, and if they insist on information that doesn't seem justified, leave to go elsewhere. Some people give false information at such sites, especially if they don't plan to return in the future. Be especially cautious of "profiles" and "directory listings" for instant messaging programs or web sites.
- Block or ignore unwanted users. Whether you are in a chat room or using IM, you should always check out what options/preferences are available to you and take advantage of the "Block all users except those on my buddy list" or adding unwanted usernames to an Ignore list in chat. If anyone bothers you and won't go away, put them on block or ignore!
- Don't allow others to draw you into conflict. That may mean that you don't defend yourself from personal attacks. It's safer to ignore them and keep yourself above the fray. When you respond to a harasser in any way, you're letting him know that he has succeeded. No matter how hard it is to do, do not interact with a harasser. When he realizes that he isn't getting a reaction from you, in most cases he'll move on to find an easier target.
- Lurk in a new forum to learn local customs. Read mailing list or discussion board postings for a week or more without responding or posting anything yourself. In chat rooms, just sit quietly for 10-30 minutes to see if the discussions that are going on are truly something in which you wish to engage. Don't respond to private messages in that time, either.
- If a place becomes stressful, leave it. There are many stressors we cannot avoid easily in our lives, so why put up with those we can avoid? If someone is being asinine in a chat room or on a discussion board, there are countless others that are likely to be more pleasant. If another visitor to a chat room or forum is harassing you and the forum owner/moderator refuses to take decisive action, why would you want to be there? Don't allow yourself to get tied up in battles over territory.
- When you change, really change! If you need to change your username or email address to break off contact with a harasser, using a variation on your real name or anything you've used in the past leaves tracks allowing the harasser to find you again fairly easily. If you've always been "Kitty" and you change your handle to "Cat," you haven't really changed. The harasser knows that you have particular hobbies or interests. For instance, perhaps you like to play Scrabble. If he's really obsessed or simply has too much time on his hands, he's likely to poke around in different Scrabble-related fora looking for feline names to see if he can find you again.
- Watch what you "say" online. When you do participate online, be careful--only type what you would say to someone's face. If you wouldn't say it to a stranger standing next to you in an elevator, why in the world would you "say" it online?
- Know what's in your signature file. Don't put your company name, title, email address, address, phone/fax number, etc. there unless your employer requires that you do so. If you must provide that information, restrict use of that email account to business interactions with co-workers and customers. Do not ever use it to participate in any public forum (mailing list, newsgroup, web-based discussion board, etc.).
- Never use a business account for personal use. Simply leaving messages on a discussion board will reveal your IP address to others. That information can easily lead to a stalker knowing where you work and finding you offline. Restrict personal internet use to home and public access computers.
- Ego Surf. Put your first name and last name in quotes in a search engine such as Yahoo!, Google or Dogpile and see if there are any results regarding you. You just might be surprised at what you find. Also put in the names of your spouse, loved ones and/or children. Remember to put their names in quotes to refine the search results. Better yet, use TracerLock or a similar service to do it for you on a regular basis.
- Never give your password to anyone. Your ISP will never, ever ask you for your password while you are online or via email. In fact, they shouldn't ever contact you to ask you for your password, period. They can get it from their own records, if they really need it for any reason. If you call them for support, there are a few rather rare instances in which the support person might ask you for your password - but you called them, right? So you know it's really a support person from your ISP that you're talking to. There's no legitimate reason for anyone to ever contact you to ask for your password.
- Don't provide your credit card number or other identifying information as proof of age to access or subscribe to a web site run by any person or company with whom you are not personally familiar or that doesn't have an extremely good, widespread reputation. Check consumer advocacy resources before giving out your credit card number to anyone, just to be sure that your trust is justified.
- Personally monitor children's internet use, even if you have trained them in what information they can and cannot give out. There is no software in the world that can replace the active involvement of a concerned parent.
- Instruct children to never, ever give out personal information - their real name, address, or phone number online without your permission. Consider posing as a stranger to befriend them just to see what you can learn.
- Be very cautious about putting any pictures of yourself or your children online anywhere, or allowing anyone else (relatives, schools, dance academies, sports associations) to publish any photos. Some stalkers become obsessed because of an image. A random email address or screen name is simply much less attractive to most obsessive personalities than a photograph.
If you have any tips you'd like to see added here, please send them to us