Cyberstalking takes many forms. And the abuse of personal data on the internet to play tricks on people or exert pressure on them is growing, experts say. Cultivation of one's web image and more careful use of personal data can help prevent trouble, however.
A general term used by lawyers and law enforcement authorities for internet offences, cyberstalking is "an artificial concept" that still lacks a precise definition, explained Berlin lawyer Ulrich Schulte am Huelse. Basically, it covers the various ways people are harassed and stalked via the internet.
The risk of victimization rises with the frequency of internet use, experts say.
German police have no statistics on cyberstalking. "It's probably on the increase. We don't keep a record of offences under this heading," said Frank Scheulen, spokesman for North Rhine-Westphalia's State Office of Criminal Investigation, in Dusseldorf.
"As the new media grow and spread, it stands to reason that cyberstalking is growing as well," remarked Professor Harald Dressing, a member of the Mannheim-based Central Institute of Mental Health.
The consequences include personal affronts along with practical problems. "Using other people's names, cyberstalkers buy and sell goods in online and mail-order transactions. They publish harassing homepages and blogs, and commit punishable offenses," Scheulen noted.
He said that sending unwanted e-mails was also common, as was the unauthorized publication or manipulation of photographs or purported statements with suggestive content by the victim.
Most cases of cyberstalking are due to the careless use of personal data on the internet. Victims should notify the police as soon as it occurs, Scheulen said.
"Then the police can trace the perpetrator through the internet service provider and IP address," he added.
If the police have been notified, a warning, cease-and-desist order and damages claim have a good chance of success, noted Schulte am Huelse, who recommended that victims document cyberstalking from the beginning in preparation for legal action.
Careful use of the internet and personal data helps prevent cyberstalking. "Don't reveal personal information such as hobbies or preferences," Scheulen advised. Most importantly, telephone numbers, addresses and names should not be published in chat rooms, he said, because "you don't know who's lurking in the web and to what use the data will be put."
Dressing said that users of social and business networking websites should only allow friends and acquaintances to access their personal profile. After all, he pointed out, no one runs around the centre of town wearing a sign showing their personal data.