Cyber-Stalkers

This guy calls me up in the middle of my classes, or when I’m hanging out with my friends in campus and tells me I look good in whatever outfit I’m wearing at that moment. I tried changing my number, but somehow the guy kept finding out. It’s been freaking me out to the point where I started losing my hair and heading towards losing my sanity as well. I rarely hang out at campus anymore and I keep looking over my shoulder. I can’t get over the feeling that someone is following me.” This story, told by high school student Natasha, is hardly an uncommon one. Stalking is not only becoming more and more prevalent, its nature is evolving. Long gone are the days when we were worried about loiterers making lewd remarks in hushed voices outside girls’ schools. The modern day pervert will obsessively stalk his victim until she goes insane or even kills herself from sheer stress, panic and depression. Only this time, they can hide behind computer screens in the safety and comfort of their own homes.
Samira, a high school student, recently had her email, Instant Messenger (“IM”, i.e. MSN Messenger, Google Talk, ICQ, etc.) and Facebook accounts hacked simultaneously. She says, “I don’t know how this could have happened. I never shared my password with anyone and it’s pretty hard to figure out via simple guess-work. Yet, one day I came home from school and tried to log on to my Facebook account and failed. I tried logging on to my MSN and my Yahoo accounts as well, but somehow those too had been hacked, and the passwords changed.”

There are several ways a cyber-stalker could gain access to private information such as login ID’s and passwords. The most common scam is fake emails from Facebook or MSN that claim the user has won a million dollars (or a luxury car, a free trip to Las Vegas, or something similar) and to claim the prize he or she must disclose private information, including passwords. The more advanced forms of “hacking” (actually, it’s only using tools developed by hackers) include “key loggers”. Key loggers are malicious software, transmitted like any other virus, that records every keystroke on the infected computer and relays them to the remote user. Another hacking tool is the USB thief. This is so simple that even a child could use it (and they do). All the person has to do is install the software on a USB flash drive and insert it in the victim’s computer. Within a few seconds all passwords and other encrypted information will be transmitted. All of these attempts can be easily thwarted by a strong, sturdy firewall, but since most people don’t even know what a firewall is, the stalker takes advantage.

For Samira, losing access to her Facebook and IM accounts was only the beginning of her nightmare. Soon, she discovered that her cyber-stalker had opened a fake Facebook account with pictures stolen from her original account and filled it with smut porn and erotica, along with disturbingly obscene status updates. The mystery hacker also logged into her IM accounts regularly and chatted with her friends who had no idea that they were talking to Samira’s stalker. Before Samira could close her account and update her friends on what was going on, the stalker had already gauged Samira’s land phone number, home address and even several of her friends’ cell phone numbers. Eventually, the stalker turned her into a paranoid teenager who refused to use a cell phone, Facebook and even the internet. Even though Samira is severely traumatised and will probably have trust issues for the rest of her life, the stalker was never caught and probably never will be. Because all he has to do is to cover his tracks in cyberspace or hide behind a masked IP address.

The only thing Samira and the rest of us can do is try to take preventive measures to protect ourselves. Of late, many cell phone service providers have introduced features like call blocking or black-listing – features designed to block annoying callers/stalkers. An admirable effort by the telecom industry to subdue stalkers; however it has hardly ever helped a real stalker victim. The stalker can simply keep on calling from public phone booths or use other SIM cards (which are very easy to obtain, since they are 150 a pop). Another telecom service has even turned into a tool in the hand of the stalkers. The “friend finder”, as it is called, enables whoever gets hold of your cell phone to locate you within a 700 metre radius, anywhere in Bangladesh. If there was ever a reason not to let your cell phone out of sight, this would be it.

Most passwords are stolen from public computers and cyber cafes, so another thing that is crucial to remember is to make sure that you are properly logged out after using a public computer. A home computer is safer, but in the age of key loggers and spywares, you can never be too sure. It’s a good idea to install a sturdy firewall like Zone Alarm and scan the computer regularly with a dependable anti-malware program. These measures may seem troublesome and annoying, but sometimes they’re the only thing that keeps sick, twisted individuals from violating your privacy. And what is a couple of minutes of prevention measures compared to having to look over one’s shoulder every minute of every day?

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