How do I deal with an email stalker?
September 8, 2009 1:32 PM   Subscribe

For the past several years, someone with a sick fetish has been sending me sexually harassing emails. The emails come to my Hotmail and Yahoo accounts. When I had a MySpace account, I'd get messages there as well.

Up until recently, I've just deleted the messages and blocked his address. This person, however, always just gets a new throwaway email address and continues to send me messages. Right now they show up every 3 weeks or so.

I'm to the point now where I am absolutely tired of this. The emails detail what he would like to do to me, and I do feel threatened. What can I do?

I don't know who this person is, or why I'm the focus of this attention.
posted by Ostara to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can call the police. Have you tried this? Have you saved any of the emails?
posted by hermitosis at 1:41 PM on September 8, 2009

Get a new email account and ask all your friends to use the new accounts. I thought about this when I was using on line dating services and wanted to be prepared if I needed to evade an overly persistent party.

That's a lot of effort but you're completely in control of it. And, if this person is someone you know, that you have told about the new address, it could help you narrow down the culprit.

Good luck
posted by Red58 at 1:41 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow. That is completely unacceptable. Continue with your excellent non-responding and save any future emails that he sends to you. Has he (or she, I suppose) ever included any details that could shed light on where he knows you from?

It sounds like someone who knows you in real life, judging by the years-long contact and the MySpace emails. If I were receiving graphic emails and felt threatened, after years (!), I would call the police at least for information on what to do. The more that you can supply, the better (did he threaten to come to your house, or your work, or include any personal information?).

I don't know what resources the police will have available to them, but it feels like a good first step.
posted by amicamentis at 1:42 PM on September 8, 2009

I'm surprised that Yahoo or GMail or whatever can't spam-filter it anyway, even if the source address keeps changing. Aren't the contents very similar every time? Don't you mark them as spam?
posted by rokusan at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2009

This is harassment. Call your local police department.
posted by nestor_makhno at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2009

Print out emails. Call the police.
posted by desjardins at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2009

Change your email address? Be careful who you give the new address out to, since this sounds like it's possibly coming from an acquaintance. Perhaps handle business matters on one address and personal on another.
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2009

(And definitely call the cops.)
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:44 PM on September 8, 2009

keep all the them in a folder and save them. You don't have to read them if you don't want to....but save them.

I would be worried that this guy might try to hurt me/kill me or someone I loved.
Rape would be my next big concern.

Talk to the local police department/Internet provider about getting the IP address traced...after you have some prove saved up to get this done....

It really depends on the "Sickness" of the emails and notes that determines if he goes to jail, or not, also local and state laws. Research your laws for your area. You might be okay with just a restraining order...or you might need a shotgun.

Good Luck.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 1:47 PM on September 8, 2009

When I received harassing email (from someone on this site, no less) I ended up changing my primary email address. Realistically, there's not much more you can do than that.

Thankfully, online identities are easy enough to change to evade these creeps. Then they get bored and move on.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2009

My idea would be to catch this person by forcing them to show their IP address. If you run your own website/domain, you could set up a page no one knows about and reply with the link. The link presentation relies on you, whatever sort of social engineering you want to employ (this can run the gamut from HEY NUDE PIX!!! to 'Automated Message: My contact info has changed, please download my .vcf from here/Please see my new details here', etc). If the person clicks the link, you then have their IP, unimpeded by hotmail/yahoo, and you can then investigate where this person is visiting from (home ISP? work computer? panera bread free wifi?) along with a loose idea of their geographic location. This is all assuming they are not smart enough to proxy their web traffic through other sources/TOR. This could be enough information to warrant some police action taken, depending on what you get.

Also you could send the 'My Contact Info Has Changed' and just give a fake email you set up and forget the password for. That way he starts sending emails to that new address, not realizing no one is actually reading or even logging on to the account, and you never see them again.
posted by Mach5 at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Step one,stop deleting them. Call the police.
In my opinion, someone who does this to you for years is not fooling around. You really need to alert the cops about this.
posted by caveat at 1:50 PM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I no longer use my hotmail or yahoo accounts ... they just sit idle and I login once a month or so. I suppose that I should de-activate them entirely.

I have saved the past 2-3 months worth of emails. I deleted all of the rest when I received them.

Would the local cops be able to help if this person is in another state? I'm afraid that the cops won't be able to do anything, and that he's going to escalate things in retaliation. Maybe it's an unfounded fear, but it just makes me unsettled.
posted by Ostara at 1:50 PM on September 8, 2009

e-mails have headers that give you a lot of information. If you don't know how to see those let us know what your mail client is and someone here will be able to tell you how to get to it.

The header will look like this:
Mail Internet Headers Version 2.0
Received: from ([]) by with SMTP Service
Tue, 8 Sep 2009 15:06:30
Received: from ([]) by with SMTP
Tue, 8 Sep 2009 15:06:29
From: 'stalker'
To: ostara


Often the last one of these Received lines before the From: will give you the originating IP address. This could be as granular as the actual address of the machine that sent the message or it could be the translated outbound address of an entire company. Either way it will give you good information. Entire the IP address at ARIN to see who owns it. Put it in the "Search Whois" box at the top right.

From there, if you have it narrowed down enough to suspect an individual you can contact the relevant authorities.

posted by IanMorr at 1:52 PM on September 8, 2009 [15 favorites]

Also, do the emails follow any sort of pattern? Is there something you do every few weeks that would 'remind' this person?
posted by Mach5 at 1:52 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding IanMorr

A handy guide is available Here.
posted by errspy at 1:55 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

What email service do they use to send the email? I once had some threatening/racist emails sent to me from someone with a throwaway hotmail account. Looking at the header information in the emails sent I was able to compare the IP address of the computer that sent the threatening emails with normal emails in my inbox and figure out who the sender was. Gmail doesn't seem to pass along the IP address of the computer that sent the email. But for other services it would be worth checking out.

That being said, if I had thought at any time that the sender in my case was serious/dangerous I would have contacted the authorities.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:56 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, you may want to report it to the abuse teams of his throwaway e-mail providers. (Hotmail)
posted by caveat at 1:57 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you can do some sleuthing and pull their ip address from their email messages, you could always complain to their ISP about the harassment (if they're sending the messages from home, anyway). Or let the cops do it.
posted by scarykarrey at 1:58 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you think it might be an acquaintance but you're not sure you could consider creating a number of different email addresses and giving a different one to each person you suspect with a message about changing your email address. Since they're the only person who know about that email address, if the harassing emails show up again at one of those addresses you've got a good idea of who is sending them.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 1:59 PM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Would the local cops be able to help if this person is in another state? I'm afraid that the cops won't be able to do anything, and that he's going to escalate things in retaliation. Maybe it's an unfounded fear, but it just makes me unsettled.

Sending threatening emails across state lines is something that would be of interest to the FBI and US Attorney's office, and if you turn the ear of the right person, they will send some very unfriendly and serious looking people to have a chat with whomever is responsible.

Also keep in mind that you don't need to do the sleuthing on your own (though it won't hurt). If you can convince the cops that this is a serious thing, they typically have the resources to hunt down the person.

My freshman year of college two FBI agents visited my dorm because one of the kids who lived there was sending not-so-nice emails to someone in another state.

He stopped.
posted by toomuchpete at 2:06 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Keep these emails and contact the police. I am glad you are not freaking out, but you do need to take this seriously. This is someone who is potentially sick and could get sicker.
posted by xammerboy at 2:06 PM on September 8, 2009

Don't let some creep force you to lose accounts you've built. Police.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:28 PM on September 8, 2009

You are being stalked. This is dangerous. It could escalate beyond 'cyber stalking' to the virtual equivalent. Document the events, and start savings the emails to create a trail. But the very first thing you do is call the police.
posted by SuzB at 2:41 PM on September 8, 2009

I am astonished that I am the first person to recommend The Gift of Fear. So, yeah, read that if you haven't.

If someone is communicating specific threats of physical harm, including rape, to you specifically, that's very likely to be illegal either where you live or where they live or both. It's not something to take lightly.

I get lots of crazy emails threatening physical harm and what-not in response to stuff I've written or posted. But they're drive-by hatefests, not this kind of multi-year stalking. Take this seriously. I'm sorry this is happening to you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:26 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Gmail's spam-filtering is quite good.

Go to the police. They may be useless, or not. But you should get this reported.

Complain to the sender's email host(s), as caveat suggested. Probably won't help; certainly can't hurt. Forwarding the emails as attachments preserves their identifying information.

Do you know anyone who has a level of email and Internet knowledge at the level of a email / system administrator? If you can track the IP address of the bad person, you may be able to get the ISP (Internet Service Provider) to assist you in tracking the person down. You could put up a website or and track visitors. The stalker is likely to find it and comment. If you have the right access, you'll have their IP address.
posted by theora55 at 4:26 PM on September 8, 2009

You can also fake a bounce message to the email so it looks like your address is invalid. This may be sufficient to discourage him (or her).
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:38 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

This happened to me. I eventually told the police, and they found out where the emails were coming from, and had a "chat" with the employees at that location (it was an office). No charges were pressed and I never found out who the culprit was, but it never happened again.
posted by Cygnet at 5:34 PM on September 8, 2009

This website seems useful. You'll need to make your own decision regarding a restraining order based on what you know about the situation; restraining orders may trigger retaliation.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:17 PM on September 8, 2009

You don't have to learn how to parse an email header by yourself, you can use a service like this Header Analyzer to get a feel for which IP address this person is sending you email from.

Definitely keep the emails (you don't have to read them) and use them when you report the stalking to the police. Anything could set off an escalation - better that you have reported it before that happens. (I had an online stalker that escalated to scoping out my apt and leaving dead flowers in my car door handle, before I reported him to make it stop. I wish I had acted earlier, which would have saved me lots of heartache and fear.)

Be careful, and take care of yourself. Don't let the little creep get to you.
posted by gemmy at 6:23 PM on September 8, 2009

If you go to the local police, even if the offender is in another state, you should be under their jurisdiction. If they refuse to help you can ask to get the FBI involved, who would handle a multi-state case anyway. Is there any reason why you think this person is out of state, maybe something you could use to give the police a clue?

You absolutely need to contact the authorities with your paper trail. While a restraining order could be escalation, if the emails continue after the order is filed, I assume the sicko could be jailed. He could also be monitored if you bring it to someone's suggestion. I say you have to do it.
posted by itsonreserve at 7:03 PM on September 8, 2009

Contact the police, with copies of all the messages.
They might not be able to do anything now, but the sooner you start a file on this the sooner you have a record to refer to the next time.... when the file gets thick enough, they might have enough to work with. Also, if, god forbid anything happens to you, they'll know where to look.
posted by Billegible at 7:16 PM on September 8, 2009 is another tool you can sometimes use to track down a not-so-careful email stalker.

Plug any of the addresses you have into here. If they've used that email to sign up for other things, sometimes you can get more information. Occasionally, you might be able to turn up their real name or other accounts that might lead to their identity.

If you have other usernames this person used from other sites, maybe try them in there as well and see if anything comes up.

But you should definitely 100% for sure contact the police, aside from any sleuthing you're doing on your own.
posted by howrobotsaremade at 9:06 PM on September 8, 2009

Is there anything distinctive about the style of writing in the emails, or the use of capital letters or punctuation? (If you're not sure, show one of them to a friend who's an English teacher or who does editing work for newspapers, magazines or books.) Do you have any contacts whose emails show the same quirks?

A person's use of English can be as distinctive as a fingerprint, for someone who knows how to analyse it.
posted by Hogshead at 10:30 AM on September 9, 2009

Response by poster: Nothing is distinctive about the style of the emails. They basically say the same thing each time.

I think that he's probably in another state because we have moved a couple of times since the emails began.

This person was also stalking a well-known blogger back in 2005, about the same time he started sending emails to me. I know this from googling one of the email addresses that he used initially and stumbling upon the blogger in question. She blocked him, faked some bounces, but he still got new throwaway email address and continued to harass her.

Thanks for the advice everyone - there is a lot of useful information in this thread. I am going to at least talk to the police and see what they can do. I would love for the police to have a "chat" with him, as well as to get a restraining order in place.
posted by Ostara at 3:38 PM on September 9, 2009

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