Social Media Harassment is a Real Threat. Here’s How to Protect Yourself.

It is an almost undisputable truth that access to a cloak of anonymity and a large, large microphone brings the worst out in some people. Today, this is particularly true on social media. Online harassment and hate-messaging is a growing trend and a growing security concern for anyone on social media today. In fact, 40% of Internet users say they have personally experienced online harassment.

Harassment on the Web has also taken its toll on celebrities and public figures, some of which have consequently signed off social platforms for good. And while many of these platforms are taking a stand against harassment, there is still a lot individuals can do in order to stay protected. In fact, there are a lot of things you can do to prevent and fight against online harassment. Here’s where to start:

Secure your accounts.

Account security should be a high priority for you, your loved ones and anyone else — especially during periods of harassment. Every account you have should be secured with a complex password — at least eight characters long, with numbers, capital and lowercase letters and symbols — and two-factor authentication.

Two factor authentication is especially important when it comes to account security. The reason is simple: a lot of harassers are tech-savvy, and enjoy taking over a victim’s account to perpetuate offensive comments in their name, in order to damage their reputation.

Two factor authentication prevents this by requiring a user to both a) know the password and username for an account and b) prove they are who they say they are, by using something only the real user would have. In many cases, this means a service will send the real user a message on their smartphone that the user will use to verify their identity.

Yes, two factor authentication may sound troublesome and time consuming — but it’s far less troublesome and time consuming than repairing your reputation after a compromise.

Control who can follow you, and block harassers.

Facebook and Twitter both feature robust privacy options, allowing you to limit who can see your account, your posts and your information.

For Twitter, it’s a good idea to lock your account. This allows you to approve who can follow you and see your posts. You can also block harassers on Twitter by clicking on the “gear” icon in an attacker’s profile and selecting “block.” Twitter provides some additional privacy tips here.

Facebook offers similar privacy options. You can limit who sees what, block harassers and report illegal (and harassment is illegal) behavior. You can read Facebook’s privacy offerings here, and learn how you can stay safe from harassment on the website here.

Limit what you share online.

Limit how much information you share about yourself on social media websites. Addresses, phone numbers and locations shouldn’t be shared in posts and shouldn’t be included in biographies. Attackers can use this type of information to make false threats and, in some cases, falsify crimes to elicit a police response—this is a technique called “SWATTING” and it’s quite serious. You can find out more about this threat here, and read a reporter’s account of being swatted here.

Do not click links, open messages or engage with harassers.

If you are targeting by harassers, you may be tempted to respond. Don’t. Do not engage with harassers in any capacity. Not only does it empower them, it could also give them an opportunity to commit a cyberattack by tricking you into clicking on a link or opening a file. This is what we call a “phishing attack,” and it’s very common (and often very effective).

Instead, let your friends and family know you’re falling victim to a harassment campaign, and that you won’t be responding to online messages for some time. Make sure you have a comprehensive security solution on your devices, and always be suspicious of unwanted or unwarranted contacts — especially from accounts posing as family members or others you may trust.

Report harassment to the site’s owners. Today, most major social media websites have tools you can easily use to report harassment or other various forms of abuse. Use them (Twitter’s is here. Facebook’s methods are detailed here). But some websites are simply too small to deploy complex reporting tools. If this is the case, then either contact a moderator or email the service by using their contact information — typically located at the bottom of the site’s webpage.

Report harassment to the authorities. In many cases, harassment is illegal. Sustained attacks over social media are definitely illegal. There are options for victims, legally speaking. If you feel a harassment campaign has crossed the line, through which you fear for your safety, then it’s time to contact the authorities.

In many cases, this means submitting complaints with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), or your local police station. The IC3 works with other legal authorities to track down and arrest criminal behavior online. Typically, local police departments have their own websites you can also use to submit complaints as well. Something to note: regardless of how you submit a report, you will need to have proof of harassment. Take screenshots of everything and submit them alongside your complaint.

You don’t have to tolerate harassment, or consider it normal, at any point in time in your online life. You can fight against, and help end, online harassment starting with the pointers above, as well as join our Hack Harassment initiative.

And of course, stay on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats by following me and @McAfee on Twitter, and ‘Like’ us on Facebook.


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