Being Harassed Online? When to Call the Police

October 8, 2014

When to Call the Police if you are Being Harassed Online

Please note – we cannot help you if you are being harassed on Facebook or other sites. This article provides information on when to call the police.


Being Harassed OnlineI think sometimes that people forget that there is a human being on the other side of the keyboard. As a result, some people can engage in extremely bad, even mean and harassing behavior on the web. A frequent question I get is, what can I do if I am being harassed online? The answer, I am sorry to say, is, it depends.

First, understand that simply being mean or annoying is not harassment, legally speaking.  Now, obviously, it feels as if you are being harassed when someone is writing cruel things about you, and I think as human beings we understand such behavior to be harassment, but as far as the law is concerned, harassment requires more. There are ways to deal with this kind of cruelty. Frequently the best way is to involve the websites and the online communities in condemning and addressing the behavior. Wired has an excellent article on the subject called Curbing Online Abuse Isn’t Impossible. Here’s Where We Start. The question I am addressing here though is when should you call the police if you are being harassed online?

What is Criminal Harassment?

Different states and the federal government define harassment in different ways. Most frequently, when someone calls me, she is dealing with someone who is being incredibly mean and obnoxious, but not engaging it what would be considered either criminal harassment or defamation. For the police, criminal harassment generally requires threats of violence. Those threats of violence need to be specific and against you. In addition, the police should get involved in cases of real life stalking that is being combined with online stalking. An example of this would be someone taking pictures of you offline in locations where you would expect privacy, or showing through numerous pictures that he is following you around and then posting those pictures online.  For details about what the federal government believes should be reported to the police, see its Report Cyberbullying page.

Harassment By Advertisement?

Another form of criminal harassment is posting ads in which the harasser writes an ad encouraging people to go to the victim’s house to assault her. An example of this behavior involves ads on Craigslist in which the harasser claims that the victim wants violent sexual encounters and claims to be the victim in the post. This kind of harassment is very dangerous and can have serious consequences for the victim. There have been cases in which the victim has actually been raped as a result of such ads. Police tend to take this very seriously and Craigslist will cooperate in identifying the harasser. If you see such an ad it is important that you act quickly for your protection.

Having Trouble Reporting Online Harassment?

Sometimes, small police departments won’t respond even, if you do receive specific threats of violence. The department will tell you there is nothing it can do until the person threatens you offline (for example in a voicemail) or comes to your house. In those cases your best bet is to get in touch with the state police as well as the FBI. In a non-emergency situation, you can file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Unfortunately, if you do not have any proof of a threat of violence, it will be all but impossible for the police to act.

Harassment from a Family Member or Ex Romantic Partner?

If you are being harassed online with threats of violence by someone who is a family member or with whom you had a romantic relationship, there are special laws to protect you. The laws fall under domestic violence and involve obtaining protection from abuse orders or other forms of specialized restraining orders. These orders normally come from a civil family court as opposed to through criminal court. Frequently, you can seek an emergency order if the threat is great enough. In these cases, your best bet is to speak with a family law attorney who handles protection from abuse orders in your jurisdiction. If you cannot afford an attorney, look into domestic violence groups near you. They can often guide you to low cost or free legal advice. You should also call the police under these kinds of situations.

Other Steps you can Take to Curb Online Harassment

Fortunately, in most cases online harassment is not likely to lead to actual violence. Most of the time the person or people engaging in harassment are bullies looking for a response. In this kind of a case your best response is no response.

  1. Create screen shots of all harassment
  2. Block the person or people harassing you
  3. Have your friends/relatives block the people as well
  4. If the person calls you do not answer the phone. Do not answer calls with no caller ID identification.
  5. Report the activities to the website
  6. Do not engage with the person. Do not ask other people to engage with him either.
  7. If there are threats of violence, contact the police.

Need Help?

Please understand, I have written this article as  service to those who are being harassed online. At Lowenthal & Abrams we do not handle criminal matters or protection from abuse orders. If you need assistance, please contact your local police by calling 911, your state police or the federal government. If you are experiencing harassment from a family member, please contact a family law attorney that handles protection from abuse orders. Most importantly, please stay safe.


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