The Bogeyman in the (Router) Closet

Author’s note: This was originally posted as a comment to a post by Kol B’Isha Erva responding to a girl who was asking for advice about an inappropriate internet relationship she found herself in. She wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, and reached out for help. This is my response.

Hi, my name is Asher, I’m 22, and I’m an internet person. Kind of like you seem to be. I got into it at the same age, too. It wasn’t really a conscious choice; I kind of found myself online more and more trying to escape what was going on in my house. I was abused as a kid, and things kind of came to a head when I was 16. The internet was a way to escape that, into a wonderful world where there were people for everyone, people who didn’t judge, who seemed interested, who were as crazy and messed up as I was.

And that’s the way it was, for the most part. Everyone uses the internet to some extent, but have their lives outside of it. I wasn’t like that, though, and neither were the people I was friends with. They were all escaping something and running to the internet where they felt they could be loved and accepted for who they were. It became a question we started asking new members of our little community, “Why are you an internet person?”

Some people were just lonely, shy, lacking the social skills or self-esteem to just walk up to people and strike up conversations, start relationships. It was so much easier online. Some people were living in abusive situations, like myself. Some people suffered from illnesses which precluded them from having normal life and participating in certain activities with their friends. Some people we just weren’t sure about.

It was nice for quite a while. We would come home to each other, take recess in school together, tell each other about our days. Some of us even fell in love. One couple I know of that met through our group is married today. Some of the couples weren’t quite as lucky, and broke up. I was one of the people who found someone to love. She was an Irish Protestant girl living in Hawaii. Her reason for being online was that she was the black sheep of her family, so to speak.

Her entire family are blonde beauties, drop-dead gorgeous, and sweet as sugar. Not the smartest people, but kind enough. Her parents were pastors at the local church. All the children were homeschooled by their parents and a local homeschooling group. The families were too poor to send their kids to school so they banded together an formed an ersatz school of their own. The girl I met, Melanie, didn’t really fit her family’s mould. She had black hair, was pretty but not gorgeous, and she was very smart. Her family just couldn’t keep up with her, and they weren’t quite sure how to handle her.

We became very good friends and remained good friends for close to two years. During that time, I fell in love with her. I never told her that, because I knew that nothing could ever come of it, but I enjoyed my time with her, and she had a very positive impact on my life. She’s the one who drew me out of the depression I had been suffering, and she’s the one who gave me the strength to transcend what I had been subjected to. I owe her, in a very literal sense, my life. Eventually, she met someone in school, fell in love with him, and stopped talking to me. I was saddened by it, but life goes on.

Left without her to occupy my every waking moment, I went back to that little online community. I’d sort of drifted away from it after getting involved with Melanie. I wasn’t please by what I found. I had left the chatroom I’d made for the group close to a year before, and I asked to be invited back. Remember those people I mentioned who we weren’t sure why they’d joined? They were twenty-somethings and we were, for the most part, considerably younger. When I rejoined the chatroom, for the first time in close to a year, I found them encouraging a 17 year old girl to take off her clothes for their amusement and pleasure. I left, and never went back. That girl, I’m sure, kept taking her clothes off for them.

So there are good stories and bad stories, but in my experience, the bad outweigh the good. About a year or so ago, a friend of mine called me early in the morning, sounding like he was ready to murder someone. He had been scanning his fifteen year old sister’s computer for viruses and came across some pictures she had sent of herself, not wearing much, to a bunch of older guys in a Skype group. The guys were in their late twenties and early thirties.

Another girl I know, missing something in her life and seeking some kind of companionship to fill that void, posted on CraigsList seeking a man. She was nineteen at the time. They are now in a relationship with each other, and he is abusive to her. He is controlling, demanding, manipulative. He picks her clothing for her, dictates how she dresses and wears cosmetics, what she eats, where she goes, what she watches. Oh, and he has girlfriends on the side. They’ve moved in together, and she now has no way out, because if she leaves him, she’ll be out on the street.

The internet is a very powerful tool, and like every tool, it must be used with caution, much in the same way one would use caution when sculpting a hedge with a buzzsaw. There is plenty of good on the internet, but also plenty of bad. It’s prudent to take certain precautions when using the internet.

Never volunteer information. Ever. Especially to someone you don’t know. It doesn’t matter how much he claims to like you, how many compliments he pays you, how many nice things come out of his mouth. Treat people on the internet the same way you would treat people in real life. If a stranger walked up to you in the street and started flattering you, you would probably call the police, not give him your phone number. Be very wary of people on the internet. Generally speaking, I only treat people online as “safe” either if I know them in real life, or I know people who can strongly vouch for them. Real people, not internet people.

Never send pictures to someone you don’t know, especially pictures that could be used to blackmail you in the future. In general it is never a good idea to take compromising pictures of yourself , even to please a significant other, because once taken, those pictures will never go away, and will always hang over your head. They can cost you your job, reputation, and sanity.

Never make yourself identifiable online unless you have a very good reason to do so. Things as seemingly insignificant as your name and city can be used by anyone to figure out your identity, and by extension your phone number and address. Never post your email address online or give it to anyone who asks for it online, unless you know for a fact that you can trust them. The same goes for usernames to other social media or sharing platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, or Skype. Typically, people use the same username for several services. A quick Google search can identify those services, which can then be used to track you and find out your identity.

Be very wary about posting pictures online in general. Make sure your camera is set to disable geotagging, or your coordinates at the time you took the picture can be extracted from the image, giving a potential predator your home address or current location. Don’t use Foursquare. Telling people where you are gives them your current location making you vulnerable to predators, and lets burglars know you aren’t home.

Just a quick illustration of my point. I did this when I was young and stupid and could have been prosecuted for it. I learned my lesson very quickly, but there are people out there who haven’t. For reasons I’ll leave for a later post, I decided, when I was 19 years old, that I absolutely had to get in touch with a certain YouTube personality. I shot him a few emails, but he didn’t respond. Undeterred, I broke into his Gmail account through his security question, the answer to which he had mentioned in one of his YouTube videos. I had gotten his email address by breaking into the account of one of his friends using a similar method. The information was all public, and I took full advantage of that.

Once inside his account, I had his life. His bank accounts, YouTube and AdSense passwords, his personal correspondences, contact lists, private pictures, and online passwords. I had everything. Being that I was only after a way to contact him, that’s all I actually took. I didn’t realize that what I was doing was a series of felonies punishable by quite a few years in federal prison. When I eventually contacted him, he did not take it well. Shortly after, he suffered a breakdown, broke up with his girlfriend, closed down his website, and moved back in with his parents. By some miracle he did not press charges. I learned my lesson and never did that again.

My intentions at the time in contacting him were pure enough, and I still managed to cause irreparable damage. Consider how much damage people setting out with malicious intent can cause. These people are everywhere online. That’s not to say that there are no good people online, or that everyone is dangerous, but caution is imperative. There are terrible people intent on causing vulnerable and otherwise naive people serious harm. It can be a very dangerous place.

Generally speaking, most people don’t have to worry about these dangers very much; they use the internet for a few hours a day and don’t invest much of their personal lives in the internet. They aren’t looking to replace a part of their lives with the internet. For internet people, however, like myself, like I presume you to be based on the email you sent Sharon, the danger is much more present and much more real. Please protect yourself from it. Please exercise caution. The internet can be an incredible tool for you, and can help you in ways that perhaps the real world can’t, but like any tool, you have to be careful.