Reporting Incidents to Authorities
Reporting Incidents to Authorities
Reporting Incident to Authorities is part of a larger resource for members of the writing community on personal and event safety concerns, both in-person and online. To see all the resources available, visit our Safety homepage. This contains an overview of what to expect when seeking legal or law enforcement help for harassment. The following information is offered for educational purposes only and is not legal advice. Most of the information on this page is specific to the United States, regarding when and how to seek legal advice or law enforcement aid for incidents of harassment.
Documenting harassment is an important first step, whether you choose to approach law enforcement, contact a lawyer, or make harassment reports on social media platforms. Even if you decide not to pursue legal action, documentation can alert you to harassment patterns and escalation of abuse over time, and it remains a valuable evidence log should you decide to make a report in the future.
What To Document
- Emails. Emails can reveal the IP address of the sender. It is important not to delete or forward emails to someone else, in order to preserve the original header information, which may reveal the IP address of the sender. (More information on locating IP addresses here.) If you have concerns about the abuser gaining access to your accounts, consider printing copies or saving screenshots on a safe device.
- Messages on social media platforms. Save hyperlinks where possible, plus screenshots in case the original is deleted. Some platforms, such as Facebook, offer alternative ways to download your data.
- Texts and phone calls. Take screenshots as applicable; retain voicemails; log dates, times, and content of calls.
- In-person harassment. Take notes on what happened, when, where, who was involved, and who may vouch as witnesses.
- Any other incident involving threats, harassment, stalking, or violence.
If possible, take screenshots, save original messages/documents, and maintain a log of specific information about each incident. Try to include:
- Date and time
- Type of communication (email, social media platform, direct message, etc)
- Location (physical; or website or app)
- Witnesses (if any)
- Officer information (if reported)
- Convention safety contact or event organizer (if reported)
- Description of the incident
Whether a law has been broken, and which laws apply, depend on both the contents of the communication and the means by which it is sent. There are additional laws governing crimes committed via the postal system and via telecommunication devices (e.g., harassing phone calls).
Choosing Whether to Pursue Legal Action
It can be very difficult to decide whether to pursue criminal or civil legal action against one’s harassers. The process can be long, re-traumatizing, and frustrating. Retaining a lawyer can be expensive. You are the best person to assess threats to your safety or the effects of sustained harassment on your mental health and career.
The following questions may help you assess the severity of your situation and whether legal action is warranted. (This list is from the “Assessing Online Threats” page of Pen America’s Online Harassment Field Manual, and is not exhaustive.)
- Has your harasser made an explicit threat that names you specifically and/or includes specific details, such as time and place (“Someone should do something” VS “Here is how I am going to do this thing to you”)?
- Does the content of your harasser’s messages contain specific personal details about you or you loved one(s) (e.g., your location, your place of employment, the name of your child’s school)?
- Are you seeing “indicia of irrationality”? In other words, is your harasser using their real name, real email address, real phone number, or otherwise openly identifying themselves while threatening you?
- Is your harasser engaging in a course of conduct? In other words, are they attacking or threatening you repeatedly and in a concerted way?
- Do you know the person who is harassing you? If so, do you believe them capable of escalating the abuse?
- Have you been hacked? I.e., have your accounts been compromised or taken over?
- Is the behavior – frequency, violence, and volume – escalating?
- Has your abuser shared (or threatened to share) sexually-explicit images of you without your consent?
- Are you concerned that the content of your harasser’s messages, circulating publicly, will negatively impact your personal or professional life?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, please consider contacting law enforcement and/or consulting a lawyer.
You may also want to take additional steps to safeguarding yourself, your family, and your personal belongings. You can find more information on threat modeling here: https://onlinesos.org/resources/action-center/threat-modeling.
When and How to Retain a Lawyer and/or File a Civil Lawsuit
People experiencing online harassment may choose to file a civil lawsuit against their harasser(s), instead of or in addition to filing criminal complaints. In the United States, for example, behavior that may warrant a civil lawsuit includes: cyberstalking, defamation, nonconsensual pornography, invasion of privacy, threats of violence, and/or intentional infliction of substantial emotional distress.
Even within the US, laws vary widely from state to state, so it is important to find a local lawyer who can walk you through the options available for your specific case. Many local bar associations will provide referrals for free. You can search for your state or local bar association via the American Bar Association’s website. The National Crime Victim Bar Association also provides referrals for cases of stalking and online harassment, among other matters.
What to Expect
It is normal to consult several lawyers before selecting one, and it can be valuable to get multiple opinions when considering your options. Initial consultations are often free. You should feel free to ask detailed questions, and the attorney should provide you with clear expectations regarding the work they are going to do on your behalf, your odds of success, and any costs that may be incurred.
Carefully review your contract for attorney representation (the retainer agreement) before signing, and be certain that you understand all of the details. Civil cases are often billed on a contingency fee basis, meaning that the attorney is only paid a fee if you are awarded a monetary settlement or judgment, and that fee is a predetermined percentage of the total award. However, regardless of whether the case is successful, you may be responsible for other costs associated with the case, including filing fees and deposition-related expenses, and these can add up quickly.
When and How to Involve Local Law Enforcement
If you feel you are in immediate physical danger, please consider calling your local law enforcement.
Involving law enforcement can be an intimidating step, especially if you have never made a police report before. You may find it helpful to bring a trusted friend or family member along for support.
Reasons to involve local law enforcement include:
- You have received specific, direct threats of violence;
- You know who your online harasser is and would like to obtain a restraining order;
- The harassment has escalated to cyberstalking (a federal crime in the USA; read more in When and How to Involve the FBI);
- You have been the subject for nonconsensual pornography;
- To establish a paper trail for your ongoing documentation of the situation.
What to Expect
Reporting procedures vary between departments. Some will take reports over the phone, some via web form, and others in person. The best way to find out your local police or sheriff’s procedure is to call their non-emergency line and ask.
You may be asked to present documentation of the harassment, or to complete an interview providing as much detail of the situation as you can, in your own words. It can be helpful to maintain a harassment log [jump link to Documentation section] and to assemble as much information on your harassers as you have access to (names and locations if known, email addresses, usernames, ISP, etc). Consider making printouts or saving screenshots on a device other than your phone, because you may have to hand it all over as evidence. You should keep a duplicate copy of everything for your own records.
Online crimes are an evolving area of police work, and training/resources vary by department. Some may have entire units dedicated to computer crime, while other departments may be entirely unfamiliar with the platforms on which you are being harassed. You may find it useful to search your state’s cyber crime laws in advance of approaching law enforcement, and bring that information with you.
These are difficult crimes to investigate and prosecute. Many types of harassing speech are protected under the First Amendment. It can be difficult to conclusively identify perpetrators, and difficult to take action against them if they are living in another state. Nevertheless, successful criminal cases have been waged, and at the very least, this step establishes a paper trail that will be useful should you need to escalate the matter to the federal level.
Because these crimes often cross state lines and involve various telecommunication devices, they may also fall under US federal law, and therefore warrant filing a report with the US FBI.
When and How to Involve the FBI (US Only)
Generally speaking, in order for a cybercrime to be prosecuted at the federal level, it must involve interstate communication. Under federal stalking law (18 U.S. Code § 2261A), it is illegal to use “any interactive computer service or electronic communication service” to conduct activity that places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury to themselves, their immediate family or intimate partner(s), or their pets; or that causes or could cause “substantial emotional distress.”
Additionally, under federal interstate communications law (18 U.S.C. § 875), it is illegal to use interstate commerce (a term which includes the Internet and cellular phones) to send threatening communications: i.e., threats to harm a person or property, to kidnap a person, or to damage a person’s reputation; or to use any of those threats to extort money or other things of value.
To report a federal crime such as cyberstalking you can:
- call 1-800-CALL-FBI;
- fill out a form at www.fbi.gov/tips;
- or directly contact your nearest field office: www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices.
You can also report financial crimes such as identity theft, online scams, or email hoaxes by filing a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3): www.ic3.gov.
The Online Harassment Field Manual (from PEN America)