A direct email or message can sometimes feel much scarier than an abusive post lobbed across social media. It takes an online harasser’s hate away from the public forum, where at least there are witnesses, and makes your online abuse feel laser focused and intensely personal.
When faced with an email or direct message that you perceive as abusive, you should first and foremost assess the threat level. If you believe you or your loved ones are in immediate danger, consider calling 911. If you’re uncertain whether or not there is a direct threat of harm but feel that your safety and security have been compromised, document the message and consider involving law enforcement. In general, always use your best judgment and take into consideration whether or not you know your attacker, whether or not they pose a physical threat, and what other personal information your attacker might be able to access about you (including your home address and place of employment).
If you don’t feel that you or your loved ones are in direct danger but are still unnerved by the email or message, here are some steps you can take:
- Only reply to the sender in very specific circumstances. Unless you feel confident that the content of the message is not directly threatening, it is best not to engage your attacker in any manner. Such exchanges are rarely productive and can often elicit further abuse. If, however, the content of the message is not threatening and you feel it would empower you to engage your attacker, please follow these Guidelines for Safely Confronting Your Online Harasser.
- Screenshot, archive, and/or print the message in case future threats appear. You will want to have all abuse documented should it escalate and/or should you decide to inform law enforcement. Be sure to follow this Field Manual’s steps for documenting your abuse.
- Do not forward the email. If you need to share it, copy and paste the content instead. Forwarding the email might cause you to lose important routing data encoded in the original email—data that law enforcement may require later on.
- Report the abusive email or message to the host platform. If the message comes from a free messaging service such Gmail, Hotmail, Facebook, etc. you should be able to report it to the host.
- Use the “block sender” feature in your email service. This may not put an end to the abusive emails entirely, as a sender can always create a new email address from which to message you, but it’s a place to start and will offer you a momentary reprieve.
- Set up filters in your email service. If you prefer to stay vigilant against your online harasser and/or plan to enlist a friend to help you monitor your abusive messages, consider setting up an email filter that will direct abusive emails into a separate or dummy email account. This way you don’t have to see the abuse on a regular basis, but if you or your trusted confidant need to check the status of emails a harasser is continuing to send your way, you’ll have a place to store them.