Email harassment is usually understood to be a form of stalking in which one or more people send consistent, unwanted, and often threatening electronic messages to someone else. There isn’t always an exact definition of what an message has to look or sound like in order to be harassing. It’s usually a matter of circumstance, since what one person finds offensive or harmful may not actually come off that way to someone else. This sort of harassment is frequently fueled by soured romance, workplace gossip, or school bullying, and is often only amplified through social media networks and connections. Some places have laws against email harassment, but not all do, and even in localities where these sorts of messages are illegal the threshold is usually very high. Simply sending unwanted mail isn’t usually something that can be punished, but a continued pattern of threats or menacing messages sometimes can be.
What makes an unwanted email message “harassing” is often a matter of personal opinion and individual reaction, though in most cases this sort of mail is sent with the intention of intimidating, frightening, or otherwise bothering the recipient. Usually the contents are personal to the recipient, but they can also include things like inappropriate jokes or other offensive material that may be sexual in nature or otherwise discriminating. While this form of harassment is frequently a repetitive act, it can sometimes result from a single transmission if it is sent with malicious intent or if the material is potentially damaging to the victim.
The most frequent instances of email harassment occur in domestic disputes, usually when one person leaves the relationship and the other becomes disgruntled. The rejected person may send a series of emails that are threatening, spiteful, and intimidating. Sometimes, though, even emails intended to entice the other person to return to the relationship can seem harassing even if they aren’t otherwise offensive in their content. In these cases, the biggest question is whether they cause significant distress to the recipient for any reason.
Correspondence in this category frequently vacillates between emotions. The scorned lover may pledge undying devotion in one email, which may be followed by violent statement or even threats of suicide in others. It’s also common for messages like this to be accompanied by other forms of intrusive behavior. Repeated phone calls, unwanted gifts, and visits to the target’s home or office may escalate feelings of impending danger or invasion of privacy.
This scenario can also stem from a desire to defame someone’s character. Inappropriate photographs or private information may be sent to a victim’s coworkers, peers, family, or friends in an effort to cause embarrassment or humiliation. This is particularly common in school settings, usually as a form of bullying. There have also been occasions in which a public online forum was used to entice others to make contact with the victim. In these cases, the culprit may post a phone number or other identifiable information about the target.
Impact of Social Media
Social networking websites are a frequent channel for a unique, often detrimental, form of electronic harassment. This doesn’t always come in the form of an email, but it sometimes does &mdash and the two often go hand in hand in any event. Sometimes, forged or bogus messages are sent to a recipient who believes the communication is actually coming from someone else. It often occurs to make the victim feel comfortable divulging personal information, in part because he or she thinks he or she is speaking to someone who is trusted. This form of harassment usually affects more than one person because both parties, the one who receives the email and the one whose identity is forged, are both victims.
Legal Ramifications and Consequences
Harassment, including email harassment, is illegal in many jurisdictions. Actually meeting the legal definition and threshold can be something of a challenge, though. Different states, countries, and localities have different definitions of cyberstalking and cyberharassment. Sometimes emails need to contain specific threats, and other times they need to reach a certain number or be ongoing for a set amount of time. Usually their content must be objectionable on a general level, too, not just offensive to the recipient.
People who want to stop receiving harassing emails don’t necessarily have to prove that the messages are in violation of the law in order to get them to stop, though. Many jurisdictions allow for restraining orders and no-contact orders that can work to effectively end the communications without actually calling those communications illegal in and of themselves.
How To Report Harassing Emails
The steps you need to take to report offensive or threatening emails differ by platform. The following information is for several commonly used email service providers:
Fill in the form with the information required. Click on the “Submit” button.
For any Hotmail, MSN, Live or Outlook.com accounts, report the abusive message by sending an email to email@example.com. The easiest way to do this is to click on the offensive message and select “Forward” from the list of options. Put firstname.lastname@example.org as the new destination and send.
To report email harassment on Yahoo, choose the offending email and click on “Spam.” Select the reason why you’re reporting the email from the drop-down list.
Another option is to go to help.yahoo.com and search for “Email a specialist.” Follow the instructions on the form to report the harassing emails.
How To Find Out Who Is Sending Harassing Emails
It’s not easy to determine who is behind a harassing email when the person uses a web service such as Gmail or Hotmail. You may be able to pinpoint an IP address if the email was sent from an organization by looking at the expanded header under the first “Received” line.
A final way to check is to search online for the person’s email address. If they use the same address at work, it may appear on a company page with their full name.
What You Can Do About Email Harassment
Avoid Responding to the Harasser
You don’t have any obligation to reply to the person sending you harassing emails. Often, any reply only serves to further encourage or provoke the aggressor. That said, if you believe the message was inappropriate rather than motivated by malice, you can send a single reply demanding the person stop contacting you.
Save All Correspondence
Create a new folder in your email account where you can store all of the person’s offensive correspondence. That way, you don’t have to look at the messages in your inbox, but you can save them in case proof is needed for a restraining order. If the harassment happened on social media, such as an offensive post, take a screenshot and save it in a similar folder.
Block the Sender’s Email Address
Social media platforms, text apps and email services allow you to permanently block certain senders. The process is different depending on the platform.
On text apps such as WhatsApp, you can block phone numbers by going to Settings > Account > Privacy > Blocked Contacts. Tap the Add (+) button. Choose the phone number or contact from the list. This number won’t be able to contact you again.
For email platforms such as Gmail, follow these steps:
- Open your email account
- Click on the message title to open it
- Click on the More button at the top right corner of the screen
- Choose Block [sender’s account]
Report the Message to Email Service Providers
Social media platforms and email services usually have rules against messages that contain hate speech, sexual images, threats and other offensive or not-safe-for-work content. You can generally tap or right-click on the message heading and select “Report abuse.”
Alert Your Employer
Harassment at work doesn’t just include unwanted physical content or in-person communications. At many places of business, it also includes inappropriate emails and text messages. Follow your workplace’s harassment policy, file a complaint and send a copy of the offending messages, images or videos to the HR department. You don’t need to talk with the harasser.
Press Criminal Charges
Is email harassment illegal? Proving cyberstalking is difficult on a federal level, though sending threats of physical harm or kidnapping across state lines is a federal crime. You can speak with the police about state or local laws to know what steps to take next.
Take the Offender to Court
It’s possible to file a civil case against the offender. You can argue that the harassment has caused severe emotional distress, health problems, doctor bills and lost wages if you missed work because of it. Unfortunately, court cases for harassment are often expensive and may last years.
When To Report Email Harassment to the Police
If harassing emails make you feel afraid for your health, safety or family, take action immediately. Report the matter to the police. Don’t let anyone talk you out of pressing charges if the situation causes you to fear. Speak to trustworthy friends and family members to seek additional support. Don’t second-guess your gut instinct.