5 Ways to Handle and Prevent Cyber-Harassment

Tips from online security expert and "20/20" contributor Mary Kay Hoal.

March 22, 2012— -- 1. Recognize the situation for what it is: Online harassment. It can also be referred to as cyberbullying, but regardless of the name, know that this is a sign of weakness for the perpetrator. As upsetting as it can be, recognize that it's extremely important that you DO NOT respond to this person. Engaging with the bully often only makes matters worse. They feed off their victim's misery and pain.

2. Make a copy of the message, photo or video. The best way to do this is to copy the URL of the specific webpage where it's happening. Then screenshot the webpage, just in case. Here are some instructions on how to do that.

3. Contact the website operators by phone, email and any contact submission forms that they have available on their site. Request that they take the content down immediately, and let them know that you're filing a case with your local police department. Remain persistent. Continue calling and emailing the website operators until the content has been removed.

4. File a report with your local police department. While some police departments have an "Internet crimes division," many do not. So unfortunately, in many cases the police can only get involved if your life has been threatened.

5. If necessary, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). The IC3 is a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. They work together to track down serious cases of online criminal complaints.

After you've taken these steps, and depending on the effect the following suggestion may have on your social life, you may want to consider telling your friends and family what's going on. In most serious cases, it's better that you let them know what's happening before they hear it from someone else. When doing this, however, you want to be sure to keep the details private, so it's a good idea to talk to your friends and family in person versus sharing the details online.

Following the incident, you'll want to practice being proactive when it comes to your online safety and privacy. One way to do this is to make sure your social networking profiles are set to the maximum level of privacy so that you aren't unintentionally providing a roadmap for the perpetrator to your whereabouts or the whereabouts of other family members. It's a good idea to take a break from using social networks and online forums.

5 Steps to Prevent Online Harassment

If you're not a victim but would like to proactively protect yourself and your family members, I recommend following these five steps in addition to the advice above:

1. Avoid participating on forums or sites that encourage anonymous posts, like Topix.com. These sites have a history of user complaints about allowing inappropriate content to remain on their sites and not taking sufficient steps to block the person who posted it.

2. Buy the domains for your and your children's names. This could help prevent someone from making a "hate site" about you or your child. Domains are relatively cheap from sites like GoDaddy.com.

3. Use Google Alerts. This will facilitate email notifications being sent to you whenever you or your family member's name appears online.

4. Avoid using any social network or online forum as your online diary. Venting in status updates and posting stories about your personal life are easy ways for people with bad intentions to take advantage of you. It's important to realize that, just as in real life, there are some things that aren't meant to be shared with the public. If you absolutely have to share something personal with someone else online, send them a private message or an email.

5. Find and remove your personal information from information-aggregator sites like Spokeo.com. Sites like these make it easy for individuals to obtain relatively accurate information about you. Here is a step-by-step guide you can follow.

Finally, recognize that these steps, though helpful, are not entirely fool-proof and can't guarantee that you or a family member won't be harassed online. While it's important to follow these steps, it's equally important that you establish a dialogue with your children about why it's never O.K. to harass or bully someone online. The key to ending cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking starts at home, and involves each of us teaching our children how to be kind, responsible digital citizens.

Watch the story of how a Georgia man's life was destroyed by anonymous online gossip on "20/20"

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Read more about Mary Kay Hoal here.

Learn more about cyber safety on the "20/20 We Find Them" page.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events