Advice to bloggers: use a webmail account for those off-blog interactions

Because if you use your primary email account, one where your user id might contain your full name and perhaps other identifying details in your sign-off block, you might be setting yourself up for cyberstalking woes.

There are weird folks out there who seem to get off on wasting other people’s time by pretending to be someone they are not in private email conversations. They lurk on particular blogs, follow commentors there back to their blogs, leave a few comments and then request a private email chat. This is where things can get weird (particularly if your default email sig block contains details about your IM/IRC accounts).

There is at least one person who makes a habit of requesting private email conversations with feminist bloggers, claiming to be a teenager having problems coping with prejudice at school and problems with sexual experiences. The revelations gradually become more detailed, this person sends the blogger photographs allegedly of themselves, then the descriptions of abuse become graphic.

Who knows what the goals of this behaviour are? This person (or perhaps a group of persons) seems to get some kicks by being an emotional vampire by spinning people a story that makes them want to help, thus diverting their time and energy from other pursuits. I currently have at least 6 different IDs on file used by someone following this pattern, who has attempted to contact several bloggers who regularly comment here at Hoyden and other feminist blogs. At least one of those IDs is the name of an apparently-real person with a long net history, but whether that is actually the true identity of the morphing stalker or whether they use that name in an attempt to discredit the real person cannot be determined.

My suggestion is that most bloggers who are contacted via email by people with whom they do not have a long-standing history of online interaction should be very wary indeed. They should certainly not attempt to provide a person with advice as a result of an email except in the broadest terms of advocating that they seek a friendly person they can trust face to face in their own community, or provide a phone help-line number for them to contact.

You may ask: but what about anyone who really needs advice? The answer is simple: very few bloggers are trained counsellors. We’re not set up to give general life advice, truly. Advocating that they seek a trustworthy person face to face, or that they contact a special purpose help-line, would be the best advice anyway, wouldn’t it?

I’d be interested to know how many commentors here recognise this pattern of interaction from personal experience? No names of suspects on the blog please (let’s not invite nuisance lawsuits). Just wondering how many bells this might ring.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, technology

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30 replies

  1. Hasn’t happened to me, but I’m well glad I have separate email accounts for various online identities.

  2. I separated my ‘real name’ and identity from this one for a different reason, but this is a very good lesson to remember.
    While this hasn’t happened to me in the feminist community, I’ve been preyed on before, though not seriously, thank god.

  3. How can you be sure that it’s not someone genuinely looking for help/advice? Having multiple online identities is something people do for various reasons.

  4. No, this hasn’t happened to me, although I did have a very emotional and confused response to posting my coming out story during the St Cecelia’s Day silent poetry reading a while ago. I wasn’t terribly helpful to the women (who was in the UK and described herself as ‘an abandoner’), and I wouldn’t be to any other stranger who approached me looking for support. What am I – the world’s rescuer? No, I’m not, and as you say there are people out there who are better qualified than I am to support those who need it.
    Sometimes women buy into other people’s dramas because the habit of caring is so ingrained in women’s upbringing. However, even feminist women can get sucked in sometimes, maybe in an attempt to prove that they’re not really those horrible man-hating bitches they are made out to be. Be a bitch, I say, and know your limits. Good boundaries are a precious commodity and the cost of lowering them can be very high.

  5. M-H–
    I get what you’re getting at there.
    When contacted by this person, my immediate thought was: “she’s going to jump off of a bridge if I don’t do something.” And even when the ‘creepy’ comments started, like, “I wish you could hold me for real” and “hugs” (shudder), I wanted to assume it was just the language barrier (this person told me their first language was Spanish, which I don’t speak) confusing the ‘real’ meanings of words. But something rang false. Then ‘she’ said “love you” (you don’t tell someone you love them after talking to them online for a day, in my book), and just a few hours later I was informed of ‘her’ trollishness.
    It feels like a giant betrayal of trust, and yeah, the next person who comes to me semi-anonymously for support, I probably won’t give it to. And I’ll probably be not too happy with that–because what if this person is telling the truth and really might jump off a bridge?
    But in the long run we can’t be responsible for the world. It would be cool if everyone were who they said they were, but that’s not the case.

  6. How can you be sure that it’s not someone genuinely looking for help/advice?

    I think tigtog and M-H have addressed that: genuine, ongoing support and advice for young people with serious life traumas who are possibly at ongoing risk isn’t to be found by emailing blogging strangers, it’s to be found with face-to-face care providers.
    Of note is that of the people we know who were duped by this particular harasser, ALL had a gut feeling that something was not right. The really big message to come out of this, for me, is to trust your instincts. They are trying to protect you.
    There’s nothing to say you shouldn’t spend a moment to drop the person some ideas for resources, just in case, if you want to. And hey, if you really want to spend more time trying to help, on the off chance that they are for real, there’s nothing stopping you. Just be wary of getting sucked into the vortex of submissive femininity and feeling like you’re obliged, even though your alarm bells are going off.
    Addit: There’s something more. Consider nurturing your online networks, the ones that are for real, that you have a history with. Backchannel chat is the way we check these things out in more detail, seeing if anyone else has had similar experiences, sharing information. Be wary of carefully constructed online fake identities, but don’t let it completely put you off making friends online. I’m a big fan of online friendships being “real” – heck, me and tigtog have only met F2F once in our lives. (And hopefully will again!)

  7. Oh absolutely, I agree young people in trouble need help from people around them, not bloggers; my question was more about the assumption that this person was not telling their genuine story – young people don’t always make great choices or know how to get help from appropriate sources, after all.

  8. Rebekka, it’s also not exactly the same story all the time – it’s like variations on a theme. If this person had real problems going on there should be more consistency with the story.
    I feel that suggesting several professional help-lines and advising them that sending photos over the internet to strangers is a really bad idea was the best advice I could offer to any teen who was genuinely seeking help anyway. I am not a counsellor.

  9. Sorry Rebekka, our comments crossed. Didn’t mean to hammer you over the head with that second paragraph.

  10. Don’t worry, I’m quite thick skinned 🙂 Hammer away!

  11. The person in the example has approached me twice, once via LP, and once via my blog, where my nym is different. The person used different names and email addresses each time, but the alarm-bell-ringing schtick was identical. Had to conclude he is thick, as well as weird.

  12. The other thing to note is that given the multiple fronts of ‘support’ this harasser has had over a period of time, at some point, if it were sincere, they would need to do something. I am sympathetic to the idea that we need to be careful about people who sincerely need help; but as in any other situation, the buck in the end has to stop with the person *in* the situation. They need to do something in their real lives. I get that it can take a while, but sometimes intensive virtual support in fact hinders the getting of real life help… Women are taught to be sensitive and take care of people; and these are good things up until the point where they enable people to not take actual steps. Then they can be hindrances, imho 🙂

  13. Memory’s a funny thing. I thought mine was pretty good, but it wasn’t till I read Laura’s comment at #12 that I realised I too have heard from this person (why did I assume it was a woman you were talking about? Maybe that’s why the penny didn’t drop sooner), some time back. Answered him sympathetically the first time, then realised halfway through reading his second email that something was odd and wrong (the “story” was too bad to be true, for a start), and simply stopped replying. Glad to be vindicated, however belatedly.

  14. PC, the alleged gender of this person has been another of the inconsistencies.

  15. (the “story” was too bad to be true, for a start)

    I seem like a nice person, (apparently) .
    Yeah. Right.

  16. I have been thinking about this on and off ever since I read this thread earlier today and I’m now feeling quite disturbed by it. What’s really awful is that this person — the real person behind this nonsense, I mean — clearly really is in need of help, and really does need to be stopped. (Though not, obviously, by us.)
    Surely this is the kind of behaviour that escalates if allowed to continue unchecked?

  17. As you know tigtog and lauredhel, I have also been contacted by this person. tigtog, great idea to start this thread to bring everyone else into the loop.

  18. Hmmm….
    I may have been targeted by something like this. Had someone purporting to have a rather unusual genetic gender identity disorder contact me via email, having discovered my LiveJournal. Said person didn’t bother ever commenting on my LJ, and was busy telling all kinds of horrific stories about terrible things happening to them in their small country town.
    My feeling at the time was “this is suspicious”, particularly since the person was purporting to be someone who was under the legal age of consent, which made me feel I might be being set up for an “online paedophile” trap or similar. I gave the best advice I could in the situation (namely: report the criminal behaviours to the police; talk with a trusted adult about the problems you’re experiencing; contact the support groups for your particular disorder online to see whether there are any local specialists etc) and eventually stopped responding to their emails and IMs.
    Meg Thorntons last blog post..Himself is away at Capel today.

  19. Surely this is the kind of behaviour that escalates if allowed to continue unchecked?

    That’s part of the reasoning behind why this post has appeared – we realised that more and more bloggers were being played in the same way. If sie continues to suck at people’s time and compassion this way it will only encourage hir. If it’s better known that sie has a pattern of doing this then more bloggers will be on their guard and sie will ideally get fewer kicks from more neutral responses.
    I doubt that non-responsiveness on its own will do much good in terms of hir stopping this behaviour altogether. But if feminist bloggers don’t reward these overtures then sie will have to take it somewhere else, at least.

  20. If one of the people I regularly see at the bus stop in the mornings were to approach me and start telling me something personal I’d think it was weird and embarrassing. So why do we feel differently about someone who’s a blog lurker, or who has left a few blog comments? They are still a stranger. Do we feel a bit of a buzz in getting to know someone whom we’ll never have to face? It’s a risk, but a different risk – for some reason it doesn’t feel so risky.

  21. Yep. Has happened to me twice. I just hope I’m not shutting out anyone real.

  22. M-H–
    If I feel as though I’m in a supportive community on a blog, I often will say some things about my life (if they’re relevant, obviously; I’m not going to say “I like pie” in a political discussion). Not as a way to gain sympathy but more of as a way to say, “here’s where I’m coming from.” I think this is different from a stranger-in-the-street scenario in that: there already is a something being discussed.
    However, this should change once the discussion has moved from comments, on topic; to e-mails/IMs, off-topic.
    For example, nowhere on my blog do I say, “I’m a therapist. Ask me for advice.” Yet the troll in question did just that. I like the point you made earlier about this being ‘conditioned’–this troll is obviously taking advantage of conditioning, and when sie ‘apologized’ to me after being outed sie said, “women are more sympathetic to me if I tell them I’m a girl.”

  23. Meg – I had a similar interaction with someone on LJ too – messaging me out of the blue several months back “because I’m going through some stuff and need to talk to someone” (in their first message). New journal, only four or five friends listed.
    I’m a pretty frequent reader around the feminist blogosphere, but I don’t comment much. I only remember the incident because it was so strange to have a seemingly teenaged girl try to spill her guts to an adult stranger she’d had no interaction with. I wonder if it was the same person.

  24. That’s the modus operandi, Aphie…

  25. Alphie, did their name happen to start with S?

  26. Purrdence, I’m afraid I can’t recall.
    Knowing I’m generally an unagressive soft touch I’ve developed hyper-awareness of potentially bad situations, and didn’t do more than try to ascertain why they were approaching me and then backing away fast.

  27. “I have been thinking about this on and off ever since I read this thread earlier today and I’m now feeling quite disturbed by it. What’s really awful is that this person — the real person behind this nonsense, I mean — clearly really is in need of help, and really does need to be stopped. (Though not, obviously, by us.)
    Surely this is the kind of behaviour that escalates if allowed to continue unchecked?”
    Pavlov’s cat, me too.
    This person had actually contacted me, and I told them exactly what was suggested in this thread – talk to someone you trust, one of your teachers perhaps. They never got to the point of describing graphic abuse to me, or sending photos, perhaps because I clearly wasn’t going to be engaged about it.
    But the more I think about it, the more I find this disturbing – I think it’s probably a guy who gets off on describing, graphically, the abuse of a young girl. It’s sick, and I am also concerned that this behaviour will “escalate” – perhaps to the point of him actually abusing someone.
    It is my opinion that these e-mails, and any information anyone has about an IP address (I don’t have this) should be forwarded to the police.

  28. Jumping in late just with what I know of this kind of behaviour – I’ve volunteered for a telephone helpline, and anyone who’s done that will know that obscene calls that follow a similar progression to the emails described here are pretty common.
    Fortunately, I haven’t been contacted by the person described here, but I was on the receiving end of a couple of obscene calls while I was volunteering for the helpline. I experienced the same intuitional “this is not right” jitters that a few of you who have been contacted by email have described. Everyone else who’d received an obscene call said the same thing. Fortunately, the helpline I was volunteering for had a hang-up policy for obscene callers. It was really, really, REALLY hard to hang up, since all the rest of the training was “stay on the line until the caller hangs up”, because of that tiny chance that the caller was actually real. And then you’d get a real call and be absolutely reassured by the difference.
    As for whether someone doing this is sick and needs help – I’m not sure. Nasty, yes – even criminal, perhaps (possibly depending on the applicable stalking/harassment laws – I agree with Rebekka that it might be helpful to forward IP addresses etc to police somewhere) – sick, well, not necessarily. And even if sie is, there’s even LESS you can do than if the problem sie describes in hir emails was real (at least then you could provide some minimal level of advice or support).

  29. Just bumping this thread up to the front page so that readers can see it at a glance. There’s no shortage of this sort of activity about at the moment.

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