Dealing With Jerks & Harassment

Given that I’m a computer guy I get asked for computer advice from time to time. Often it is about web browsers crashing, or slow computers, but sometimes it is more serious. Most recently it was what to do about a guy who is harassing some folks on message boards and via email.

I’m not a lawyer, nor am I a law enforcement officer, so my advice in these matters is worth exactly what people pay for it. Nonetheless, I’ve seen good and bad ways of dealing with situations like these, and thought some commentary might be in order.

I always suggest people gather as much information as they can. Get their full name, address, place of employment, web sites, email addresses, usernames, and IP addresses they use to post. Document everything they’ve sent, posted, and done to harass, including headers from email, dates, and times. Keeping a log of everything is very useful. Don’t delete anything.

After that, call the police or FBI. Internet harassment is actually illegal, and a federal crime. The Department of Justice has a page about Internet-related crime, and has a whole section on what to do. Not all police departments know what to do with computer crimes, so you might have to be firm about wanting to make a criminal complaint. Be polite, coherent, and above all stay factual. Ask them explicitly what you should do and follow their instructions. If they can’t do something for you find out who can. Get the names of whoever you talk to, so you can follow up later.

Beyond police involvement there are a whole bunch of ways I’ve seen people take matters into their own hands. Some might be appropriate, but some take a bad situation and make it worse. If you give the jerk the fight they want to have they can turn on you and call you the bad guy. Not cool, because your leverage disappears. Don’t do anything that you’ll regret or that will jeopardize any legal action.

I’ve seen people try:

  • ignoring them, hoping they go away. They’re looking for a fight, and when you don’t engage them they might go away. Maybe.
  • telling them you are making a complaint to the FBI or your local police. Making idle threats isn’t a good idea, though, because they’ll get in your face if nothing happens. It is usually better to either say nothing or pursue it quietly, so they don’t have time to react.
  • telling them you are going to sue them. This is usually an idle threat, because people who are serious don’t say this sort of stuff, they just do it. If you are actually going to file a lawsuit talk to your lawyer before saying or doing anything publicly.
  • blocking and banning the person as best you can. If you don’t run the mailing list or forum ask the moderators to take action. Don’t delete anything, though, because you might need it as evidence later.
  • making an Appropriate Use Policy (AUP) complaint to the service where the harassment is happening. Address the specific part of the AUP they are violating.
  • making an Appropriate Use Policy complaint to their email service provider. Again, be specific.
  • using various network tools like Whois and Reverse IP Lookup to find their ISP and make an Appropriate Use Policy complaint to them. Once again, be specific about how they are violating the AUP.
  • confronting them in person. Very bad idea. Remember that nothing you say or do in person will be recorded anywhere and they’ll be able to claim whatever they want about you. Like that you threatened them. That weakens your case. Plus it tells them that you are actually bothered by this. Don’t tell them anything.
  • complaining to the harasser’s place of employment, especially if it appears they are harassing you from work or a work-supplied broadband connection. I might not complain to the Whois contacts, though, but instead to company management. Why? First, the Whois contacts are techs and deal with technical issues, and this is a personnel problem. Second, there is no guarantee that the troublemaker isn’t actually the technical contact, or a friend of theirs.
  • posting a public entry on their blog documenting this, so future searches for this person turn up the fact that they are an ass. I’d keep it 100% factual and based on public record. You don’t want them to have any recourse against you, and they’ll try because this is going to make them mad. I’d probably save this one for last, in case everything else fails.

What am I missing here? Are there any ways of dealing with these people that I’ve missed?

3 thoughts on “Dealing With Jerks & Harassment”

  1. About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine realized that someone was reading her mail on MySpace. She had a good idea who it might have been but when she asked him, he denied it (of course). She wondered if there were any easy way to prove it was him.

    A quick Google search produced an image of President Bush displaying his middle finger, which I quickly wget’d down to my webserver. I composed a message to her on MySpace with a subject line that contained words like “your”, “nudie”, and “pics” and body text utilizing the ever wonderful “img” HTML tag. I told her that under no circumstances was she to view the image.

    It didn’t take but a few hours for a new “GET” entry for that particular image of President Bush to show up in access.log. A quick whois lookup of the IP address showed that it belonged to Indiana State University — coincidentally, where the “suspect” went to school.

    It so happens that I work in I.T. in higher ed, and know some folks at the Office of IT at ISU. A quick call and a “favor” got me the name of the person to whom the IP address belonged to. We called to let him know we knew what he was doing, and promptly told everyone that we knew about it.

    Her password was changed and the problem ceased. =)

  2. I forgot to mention the best part…

    When $friend asked $suspect whether he’d been reading her mail he made a remark about me (we’re not exactly best friends). My notes say that his exact quote was “…why don’t you get your computer geek friend to find out who it was?”

    Gotta love the irony. Geek justice prevails. =)

  3. long one but nice and informative experience. i for one, simply ignore them as i don’t have the comfort and luxury of spending time with smokes around the roads, but if ever i have, i make sure i enjoy returning the same favor i had with them.

    keep up the nice articles around here, well done.


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