Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Being harassed or bullied online is frighteningly common. While threats are rarely carried out by these cowards, it can still be very unsettling.

I met a boy in the chat room and talked to him decently and did not give him any of my personal information. After few days his behavior was not good and I stopped talking to him. He sent me email that was an invitation for speed dating. He once said to me in chat that this attitude will be costly for me in future. I am afraid. Can he harm me? Can he hack my computer to get my information? If yes, can he hack my all accounts or only that particular account which he knows?

Am I safe on my computer?

You're probably just as safe as you were before ever talking to this person.

But you're not alone in being concerned. I hear about your kind of situation all the time, and the bottom line question is always the same: "am I safe on my computer"?

The answer isn't really yes or no, I'm afraid. It depends on a lot of different things, which I'll review for you.

It's very easy to say things on the internet that you can't back up - things that you can't follow through on. Heck, there are those that would say that most of what you find on the internet is empty promises, threats and misinformation.

By far the majority of the threats made by people in chat or online in general are just that: empty threats; things that they never have any intention of actually doing, just things that they say to try and scare you. They say things because they can do it without fear of getting caught. In fact, these cyber-bullies are typically cowards since they would never say such things if they could be found out, or had to say them to you face-to-face.

"By far the majority of the threats made by people in chat or online in general are just that: empty threats ..."

However, that doesn't mean that they aren't scary since of course there is that tiny fraction of people that might say these kinds of things and actually mean it.

When it comes to social media, instant messaging and chat, there are no hard and fast rules about what the other person can or cannot find out about you - it depends on the specific situation.

It depends on how much information you may have given out and how much information about you is already "out there".

So let's look at what this person might have learned from you in chat:

  • Your name. It's unclear if you've used your real name in the chat room or not. If you used a fake name (which is always highly recommended), then this typically gives the bully nothing to go on - except if you continually use the same fake name over and over again with other services and on the internet in general. More on that in a moment.

    If you've used your real name - especially your full name - then anything that's public information relating to your name is easily accessible to the bully. Depending on how common or uncommon your name is, this could make it as easy as opening a phone book to find you, especially if you've shared something else.

  • Your location. Even in general terms, your location is something that can quickly help narrow down someone's search for you. Again, it depends on how much other information you've inadvertently provided, and how uniquely identifying that information is. For example, in my case a unique last name like "Notenboom", and a general location like "Seattle" - even though I don't live in Seattle itself - is pretty darned unique, and could quickly be used to find out a lot about me.

    You might think you never mentioned your location, but it's easy to give it by accident. If you said something like "I went to the so-and-so concert last night" it's very easy for someone to look up the concert schedule for "so-and-so" and know exactly where you were.

    You might not give your location at all, but your computer might.

  • Your IP Address cannot be used to physically locate your specific computer, at least not without the police's help, so that's specifically is something you do not have to worry about. However, if the chat or IM software allows the bully to see your IP address (most do not), then depending on how that IP is identified publicly by your ISP, the bully might be able to use it to find out the city you're in. Or he may just be able to determine your country and nothing more.

    "... the most common situation is that the bully is just that - a coward who's hiding behind internet anonymity himself so that he can say things to upset and scare you, and nothing more."

    For example, looking up my home IP address, depending on which service you use, it will tell you either Portland, Oregon (300 miles wrong) or Seattle (20 miles wrong). The former doesn't help much, and in fact serves as a nice misdirection. The latter might help since coupled with other information as I mentioned above, it might allow a bully to narrow down his search.

  • Other things you said are often the biggest problem. It's embarrassingly easy to accidentally tell more about yourself than you realize when chatting. You might mention a school, or an event - like the concert I mentioned above. You might mention your age, or something that can be used to figure out how old you are. You might mention all sorts of little bits of information that by themselves mean nothing, but when taken together can tell someone a lot about you.

What you say in chat to this person isn't the only thing to be aware of. In fact, it's your entire online presence that a bully can then use to threaten or intimidate you.

For example, let's say you've used your real name, and the bully can figure out your general location from what you've said. Now that person can go find your Facebook profile, or MySpace profile, or just start doing Google searches for more information about you. Depending on how careful you've been with everything you've ever posted publicly, someone may or may not be able to find out a lot about you.

That's really the bottom line here: it all really depends on what information you've given someone, and what other information is available about you online. If you take simple steps to never reveal anything remotely personal about yourself then you're probably quite safe.

I also don't want to alarm you - as I said, by far the most common situation is that the bully is just that - a coward who's hiding behind internet anonymity himself so that he can say things to upset and scare you, and nothing more.

I do want to also address that one other question you had: "Can he hack my computer to get my information?"

The answer is that we're all under attack every day. Hackers and malware authors are trying to hijack your computer via all sorts of means in order to infect you, hack your accounts, send spam and God only knows what else.

You need to be protecting yourself from those attacks already. Having good passwords and never ever sharing them, having good security software and hardware like a firewall and anti-malware tools and the like, keeping your private information private, knowing not to open attachments, click on links in email and understanding what things like phishing are are all important steps you need to take anyway to keep your computer safe.

Your bully's likely no worse. Even if you hand him your IP address and email address, he's no match for the security you should already have in place.

It is very possible to chat and do other things online safely. Millions of people do every day; it's a fun and important way to connect.

But you must take responsibility for that 'safety' part.

And that'll do more than anything else to keep the bully's empty threats just that - empty.

Article C3945 - December 9, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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11 Comments
Mike
December 9, 2009 3:52 PM

Leo, as far as Facebook or MySpace is concerned, I would be far more concerned with the fact that he has her email address than whether he has her real name. I just did a Facebook search on "Nancy Phillips" (a name I made up for the test) and got over 500 results. It would be almost impossible to identify a particular Nancy Phillips with sketchy information based on the name alone. However, if I had that particular Nancy Phillips' email address, it would be a cinch. The search would take me right to her profile. I myself have an even more common name (which has a very commonly used nickname), and I could tell this group what my name and state are without really being concerned about anybody finding me (there are multiple people with my name just in my county). But if someone had my email address, one search would have me identified.
If she has an even modestly common name, someone would have a LOT of work to do to find her--unless he has her email address (which this fellow does).

Mark
December 10, 2009 3:03 AM

It's also a good idea to create a disposable email address using fictitious information (most free email providers don't even ask any more for your address as most people use fictitious info) for setting up your FB, MySpace or chat accounts. Tat way if you start getting threatening emails from that person or even just spam, you can open a new email address easily.

Mary
December 10, 2009 8:06 AM

I'd also suggest blocking this person in you email account. If you're using free Yahoo mail, log in to your account. In the upper right corner in blue letters is "Options". Click on "Mail Options", then "Spam", then add HIS email address to your blocked address list. In Gmail: log in, click on "Create a filter" (in very small letters), enter HIS email address in the From: block, yours in the To: block, click on "next step" and follow the prompts. You can automatically delete any incoming emails from this guy without ever seeing them in your Inbox. Other email services have similar blocking options.

Alex Netherton
December 10, 2009 10:33 AM

Security being the watchword here, I would start using some personal security in my day to day life. Pepper spray in the purse or better yet, pocket. Watch where you go, and watch people around you for suspicious or threatening behavior. Take a women's self defense course (free at many Martial Arts studios and some colleges). If you ever see any evidence that someone is stalking or just watching you, notify your local law enforcement shop (city police or county sheriff) and give them his information (e-mail address, chat nickname, specific nature of threats). Also, carry one of those loud whistles said to deter attackers.
Now, tell your parents what is going on. Sometimes, parents can get things done, and they can often be more understanding than you might think. Sure, they will yell at you for chatting - parents do that. (They're just jealous that they never had the technology. Plus parents yell at you when they're scared.) Once they finish yelling, they will get down to making decisions on what to do about this little stomach worm.

xXx
December 15, 2009 9:36 AM

Leo, you may not wanna be sure about not being able to locate physically anybody using the IP address. Nowadays its so easy. Just FYI.

*I work for a SPY compa˝y and we do it all the times.

Prove it, please. I get people telling me "it's easy" (or worse, "it must be easy because my brother's friend's housecleaner did it once"). To the average person without the help of law enforcement it simply isn't that easy. I'll happily rethink that when someone proves me wrong by showing exactly how the average person can do it legally.
Leo
17-Dec-2009

johnpro2
December 15, 2009 3:54 PM

I tracked a guy on a religious debating site just out of interest to see if his claims were real.

Small tidbits of info gien away can be used by google as a starting point.
In this case I was able to locate the guys legal office in a small US town even though I live 14000 km away in another country...so be careful ..but not paranoid.
JP
Brisbane

Del Hopkins
December 15, 2009 4:09 PM

Regarding the comment on locating someone physically by IP Address, there seem to be cases, especially in large metropolitan areas, when the user's ISP is well-established with a large infrastructure (like a broadband provider over cable), the IP can be used to zero in, say, within 5 miles or so of the user's residence. You can see how accurate your ISP is here: Mobile IP Address Checker

But again, there are many factors that contribute to this being accurate, or much less so. I agree with Leo, the best advice is to be careful of what you say, and don't reveal personal information, as information gleaned from IP, may not be something you want in the hands of a malicious person.

johnpro2
December 15, 2009 9:46 PM

Leo suggests "use a fake name"

I use the same 'nic' on many sites which is the same name I use on my Hotmail account... . private and safe ..no not at all !!

I was really taken aback a few minutes ago when I Google my nic and saw all manner of info which I had posted under my nic name ...even personal pics and a video of the kids inside my house lifted from 'YouTube' .
Might have to have a rethink now ?
Jp

Jack
December 16, 2009 1:01 AM

Good post. I think most people in the internet are like to say : I can do anything if I like.

Just a joke. Take it easy.

Invisible Boy
December 17, 2009 11:41 PM

Great Post!
People should be aware that they can easily be tracked back using their email addresses. I my self when enter chat rooms do a lot of debates and as a result do get lot of such threats and even some times ppl do somehow boot me out of the room and messenger!!
When I tried to search how much information I am revealing over internet, I was surprised by getting over five hundred results and that was the time I planned to re-think over this.
I changed that email to as my public identity and created a private email address for communication with my personal contacts, deleted all the personal stuff posted via public email.
Today I feel proud that I took that step and now i can see no or very little personal information available on internet associated with my public email address and my private email returns no results over internet seach.

Andy
December 27, 2009 8:40 AM

i read this -
Prove it, please. I get people telling me "it's easy" (or worse, "it must be easy because my
brother's friend's housecleaner did it once") all the time. To the average person without the help of law enforcement it simply isn't that easy. I'll happily rethink that when someone proves me wrong by showing exactly how the average person can do it legally.
the very last word makes me wonder would it be possible do illegally , i dont want to know how , just if it is possible ?

Sure. Most obvious: hack into the computer systems of the ISP and get the information. Illegal, and probably extremely difficult, but theortically possible. Not something I worry about.
Leo
27-Dec-2009

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