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Safety Planning

Safety While Using the Internet

Safety While Using the Internet

Updated: March 13, 2019

Please note that computer use can be monitored by an abuser, and there are ways for an abuser to access your email and to find out what sites you have visited on the Internet. It is impossible to completely clear all data related to your computer activity.

If you are in danger, please use a computer that the abuser cannot access (such as a public terminal at a library, community center, or domestic violence organization), and call your local domestic violence organization and/or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE for help. For a list of local and national resources see our Advocates and Shelters page and enter your state in the drop-down menu.

Safety when using email

What precautions should I take if I want to email a domestic violence program for help?

There may come a time when you need to reach out to a service provider for help, such as a domestic violence program or a legal services organization. On our Places that Help page, part of the contact information that we provide includes email addresses. Keep in mind that if you send an email with details about your situation or if you ask for help, the abuser may be able to locate that email in your sent folder and any response you receive in your inbox. Be sure to:

  • delete your email from your sent folder;
  • delete any email you receive in response; and
  • “empty” your deleted items folder as well.

A safer way to contact an organization electronically rather than email could be to go to their website’s “contact us” page and look to see if they have a contact form available such as the one pictured below. This way, there would be no trace of your email in your sent folder. However, be sure to carefully monitor your inbox to look out for the reply and delete the message and empty your deleted items folder once you have read it.

Image result for contact form

Can the abuser access my email account?

There are a number of ways the abuser could have access to your email account:

  1. If you share an email account with the abuser, s/he will be able to read any of the emails in your account.
  2. If you use a Web-based email program like Gmail or Yahoo, your email account may be visible to someone who visits those websites on your computer unless you properly log out. Just closing your browser is not enough - you must first log out of your account to make sure that when the abuser goes to the email programs website, your personal account information won’t be on the screen.
  3. If you use of one these Web-based email programs, the abuser may be able to access your email account if s/he knows your email address and password. Note: Some people’s computers save their email address and password for them. If your computer has your email address and password saved, anyone with access to your computer can read your email. You may be able to change this setting on your browser by changing your preferences. You can look up specific instructions for the browser you use by searching in a search engine with your browser’s name and “how to disable automatic password saving.”
  4. If you use a computer-based email program like Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, or Apple Mail, anybody who has access to your computer can read your email. You may be able to include security measures on your computer, such as a password login or thumbprint access depending on the type of device you have.
  5. If the abuser knows your email address, remember to not open any email attachments sent from the abuser and to not reply to an email sent by the abuser using your new email account, as these actions may let the abuser install spyware on your computer and track your email messages.
  6. Many computers have a function called “AutoComplete,” which stores information you’ve typed on your computer in the past. For example, if AutoComplete is turned on, when you go to type something into a search engine such as Google, a pop-up box will appear and list the things you’ve searched for in the past. (You may also see this pop-up box when entering your credit card information or your address into an online form.) If you have AutoComplete turned on, the abuser may be able to access your email account even if you haven’t told him/her your email address or password because your email address and password may fill in automatically when the abuser begins typing in that field.

If you’re not sure whether the abuser has access to your email account, for your safety it’s best to act like s/he does and take security precautions to make sure you are privately and safely using your email.

What should I do if I think the abuser can access my email account?

If the abuser has access to your email account or computer, s/he may be able to read the emails you send and receive, even if you delete them.

Therefore, to send and receive emails that you do not want others to see, you may want to set up an alternate email account that the abuser doesn’t know about. There are a number of free, Web-based e-mail services that you can use. When signing up for a new email account, do not use any of your real identifying information if you wish to remain private and anonymous. Here is a list of a few free, web-based email programs:

Keep in mind that the abuser may still be able to read your email if you create a new account if you do not log out properly or if you choose a password that s/he can guess or find. The safest way to use a new email address is from a computer that the abuser does not have any access to.

Note: If you do decide to give the abuser your email address, remember to not open any email attachments sent from the abuser or to reply to an email sent by the abuser using your new email account, as these actions may let the abuser install spyware on your computer and track your email messages.

What safety steps should I take even if I think the abuser does not have access to my email account?

If you believe that the abuse does not have access to your email account, here are a few steps that you may want to take anyway, to try to keep your email account secure:

  1. Make sure you have a password the abuser will not be able to guess. Pick a password that does not contain obvious information (such as your name, birthday, Social Security number, pet’s name, etc.), which the abuser could guess. It may also be a good idea to change your password regularly. If you are not sure how to change the password on your email account, you can likely find that information by going to “help” or “?”. You can also learn more about making your password secure from Techsafety.org.
  2. Do not write your password down. Make sure you change your computer settings so that it does not save your username (email address) and password. Your computer may ask you if you want to save your username and password after you enter it. Make sure to click on “no.”
  3. When you are finished using your email, always log out or sign out. If you do not hit “log out” or “sign out,” your email account may still be open, even if you close the window.
  4. If you do decide to give the abuser your email address, remember to not open any email attachments sent from the abuser or to reply to an email sent by the abuser using your new email account, as these actions may let the abuser install spyware on your computer and track your email messages.

You may also want to follow the steps in What should I do if I think the abuser can access my email account? in case the abuser has access to your email account without your knowledge.

How do I know if I am sending email from my account or from the abuser’s account when I click on an email link that I found on a website?

As you are browsing the Internet, you may come across an email address that you can click on in order to send an email to that address – something that looks like this: //infoatdomain123.com“>infoatdomain123.com.

If you share a computer with the abuser and click on an email link, you may be sending the email from the abuser’s email address without even knowing it. This could put you in danger since whoever you wrote to might try to write you back, but will be writing to the abuser’s email address instead.

It is safer to copy the email address and paste it directly into a new message from your own email account.

What should I do if I receive threatening or harassing emails from the abuser?

You can print and save any threatening or harassing email messages the abuser sends you, as they may be used as evidence of his/her abuse in court or with the police.  To be able to prove that the abuser sent these messages, you may have to print out the messages with the “header,” which shows the account information of the sender of the email.  You may also want to think through whether the abuser’s emails include any language or expressions that the abuser typically uses in other writing or communication.  You may be able to testify about the similarities to help prove that the abuser sent the emails.

Additionally, depending on the content of the messages and how many s/he sends, s/he may be committing a crime, such as stalking or harassment.  You can report any threatening or harassing emails to the police.  For more information on online harassment, please see our Stalking/Cyberstalking page.  To read the definitions of any harassment or cyberstalking crimes in your state, you can go to our Crimes page and enter your state in the drop-down menu.

Threatening or harassing emails may also be a basis for a restraining order against the abuser.  To read about the types of restraining orders available in your state, select your state from the drop-down menu on our Restraining Orders page.

Safety when browsing the Internet

Can the abuser see what websites I have visited? Is there spyware on my computer?

There are a number of different ways that the abuser can tell what websites you have visited:

  • Your computer automatically saves a list of pages that you have visited in your Internet history and cache files (data that is temporarily stored on your computer such as websites, graphics etc.).
  • Your computer may save copies of some of the websites you have visited in something called a temp file.
  • Some websites contain “cookies,” files that automatically save onto your computer that show which websites you’ve visited, and any information you may have entered onto the site, such as your name, address etc. You can prevent cookies from saving onto your computer by changing the privacy settings on your Internet browser, which are often located in the “Tools” or “Options” menu.
  • If your computer has an AutoComplete function and it’s turned on, your computer may remember things you have typed into your web browser.
  • The abuser may have installed spyware on your computer, which may keep track of where you have been on the Internet and who you have sent email to. To read more information about spyware, such as how to detect it, and what to do about it, you can read Spyware and Stalkwerware: Computer Surveillance & Safety for Survivors which was written by the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net Project. There are things you can do to hide your Internet activity, such as deleting your Internet history, but be aware that if the abuser has access to your computer, s/he may be able to check and see that you’ve done so. It is impossible to completely hide your tracks – especially if the abuser knows a lot about computers, since there are other ways Internet activity can be monitored. The safest way to find information on the Internet is at a computer that the abuser cannot access. Try a domestic violence organization in your area, a local library, a community center, a friend’s house, or another computer that you know is not monitored.

If you are concerned for your safety, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-779-SAFE (7233) or (TTY) 1-800-787-3224.

How can I make it less likely that the abuser will find my personal information on the Internet?

There is no way to completely remove all of your personal information from the Internet.  However, here are a few steps you can take to remove as much of it as you can.

First, you should try to delete as much of your personal information off the Internet as you can on your own.  You may want to write down all of the websites that contain any of your personal information (for example: Flickr, Facebook, an old blog, etc.) and go through and change your privacy settings or delete personal information that you do not want on the Internet.  If you are not sure where your information appears, you may want to use a search engine such as Google to enter your name and see what comes up.  Then you can go to those sites to see if your personal information is listed and delete it if you can.  For additional information about this please read our page on Safety with Social Media.

Second, if there are websites that contain some of your personal information that you cannot delete yourself, you can ask the person in charge of the site (the “webmaster”) to remove the information for you.  Most of the time you will be able to find a contact email address on the site and email the webmaster directly to request that the information be taken down.  If you can’t find the webmaster’s email address on the site, look for a phone number or mailing address and contact the website that way.  If it is not done the first time you request it, follow up and contact them again.

Can I permanently delete my Facebook profile?

You cannot permanently delete Facebook by just “deactivating” your account. When you deactivate your account, your entire profile (photos, interests, friends, etc.) are still saved and may still be found during an Internet search. To delete your entire profile permanently:

  1. Click on the arrow in the top right of your Facebook page.
  2. Click “Settings.”
  3. Click “Your Facebook Information” in the left column.
  4. Click “Delete Your Account and Information,” then click “Delete My Account.”
  5. Enter your password, click “Continue” and then click “Delete Account.”
  6. You can cancel your account deletion if it has been less than 30 days. After 30 days your account will be permanently deleted and you won’t be able to get the information from your profile or account.1

1 This information was adapted from the Facebook Help Center question “How do I permanently delete my account?

Is there anything I can do to cut back on the amount of my personal information that gets onto the Internet in the first place?

There are a few things you can do. Using a made-up name and email address when you post any sort of comments on blogs or other sites that are accessible to the public can cut down on sites that the abuser can find if s/he searches for you on the Internet.

Before buying anything off of the Internet, check to make sure that the site is secure. The site’s web address should start with https:// and there should be a lock icon on the page somewhere (a little picture of a padlock). If you only put your information into a secure website, you can decrease the chances that an abuser who knows how to get information from an unsecured site can get access to your personal information. If you are particularly concerned about the abuser accessing your personal information through the Internet, you might consider asking a friend or family member to purchase items for you online using his/her name and address.

If asked by a website if they can share your information with “associates of the site” or “selected partners,” say “No.” If you agree to let them share your information, you will have no control over how any site that is given your information will use it.

Be aware of how much identifying information you are posting on any of your social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, or blogs. Please read Safety with Social Media. Remember to consider what information you want everyone, including an abuser, to be able to see. If you moved to get away from the abuser, there is a possibility s/he could identify your location through pictures, videos, or general information on profiles. If you post information to the Internet from your mobile device, it is possible that the picture has what is called “geotagging”. Geotagging is data imbedded in the image that contains your general or exact location.

With this feature, many applications may collect and share your location information. However, many smartphones give you the option of managing your location sharing under the “settings.” You can pick and choose which applications may access your location or you can opt to turn off the location setting altogether. Minimizing the location access can also help increase the battery life on your phone. If your phone doesn’t offer specific location-sharing settings, choose carefully when downloading new apps so you’re not sharing your location unknowingly.

To find instructions on disabling geotagging, you can search for “disable geotagging” along with the name of the type of electronic device you have in your Internet search engine.

Also, anytime you buy a magazine subscription, give your name and phone number to a cashier at a store, or provide your personal information to any company, that information could find its way onto the Internet. Think carefully before giving out your personal information to anyone.

I’m planning on moving. How can I keep my new address confidential?

It is difficult to really keep your new address completely confidential, but there are some things you can do to lessen the number of individuals or businesses that have access to it.

Many states now have address confidentiality programs set up for victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and stalking. Generally, in these programs, all your mail will be sent to a safe location and will then be forwarded to your new address so that you do not have to give your new address to anyone. To find out more about the program in your specific state: type “address confidentiality program” plus the name of your state into a search engine such as Google. If your state has a program like this, it might be a better option than filling out a change of address form with the post office. The U.S. Postal Service enters all of these addresses into the National Change of Address Database, which would likely provide them to marketing companies, lenders, magazines, etc. The more companies that get your information, the higher the chance that your new address could end up on the Internet and in the hands of the abuser.