“The thing about cyberstalking is that you’re never safe. Wherever your phone goes, your stalker goes with you”.
When Libby* was 16, she met Jason* online. It was the first time she’d met someone who truly understood her; someone she felt she could trust. They talked about art and their favourite books and movies. They talked about their personal lives, family secrets and Libby’s dream of escaping her conservative hometown. She told him how proud she felt when she’d received her GCSE results and how she’d always wanted to go to university. In just a matter of days of knowing one another, they were telling each other everything.
It was a whirlwind of text messages and emotions, and after only a week Jason told Libby that he could tell she had a crush on him.
“Well, if he knows it, then it must be true…” thought Libby, although prior to this she hadn’t given it a second thought. Ignoring the pit in her stomach, dismissing the crushing anxiety she was feeling as just part and parcel of being in love, she told Jason that he was right, she did have a crush on him.
That was all it took for this man, who had only known Libby a week, to begin inundating her with constant text messages. Libby would wake up to 50 to 100 text messages asking what she was doing and where she was. Jason would demand photos of her so he could check she wasn’t with another man. It was more than intense. Because Libby’s name and GCSE results were posted in the local newspaper, Jason said he knew where she lived and that if she stopped talking to him, he’d find her.
“Then,” Libby told me over an email, “things escalated”.
He threatened to hurt himself if Libby told her friends or parents about him: “I remember that text so clearly,” she said, “but what I remember even better is the rush of nausea and sheer terror that swept through me”. He convinced her that his happiness and safety was entirely dependent on her and she knew that if she didn’t cater to all of his whims, he would punish her for it.
Libby was planning to fly over to see him in his home country. Just as he was telling her to buy her ticket, Libby’s parents saw the messages and took action.
Libby was lucky, in some ways, that Jason was no longer able to manipulate and control her, but her mental health didn’t escape his wrath. Even now, she still struggles with anxiety and paranoia, finding it hard to trust her partner despite “knowing he would never hurt [her]”.
This behaviour is called cyber-stalking and Libby’s story is not an anomaly. In the United States, one out of every 12 women (8.2 million) and one out of every 45 men (2 million) have been stalked at some time in their lives. In 2020 in particular, in light of the coronavirus lockdown, cyber-stalking has become a growing concern.
Slate reported that stalkerware has surged during the COVID-19 lockdown: “The internet security company Avast says it has seen a 51 percent uptick in stalkerware usage between March and June.
“According to CyberScoop, the California-based company Malwarebytes reported a 190 percent spike in stalkerware detections on customers’ devices since lockdown began”.
Writing for The Telegraph, Laura Richards, who founded Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service in the UK, noted a 50% increase in stalking referrals in lockdown, with casework increasing from 120 high risk victims to 245 women per week.
The thing about cyber-stalking is that it’s not just common, it’s easy. It doesn’t take millions of dollars worth of equipment to hack somebody’s phone. In fact, cyber-stalking might not involve hacking at all. This is why it’s essential to have a plan of action in the case it might happen to you.
Contact the authorities
If you think you’re being stalked, the first thing you should do is tell someone. Stalking was made illegal in the United Kingdom in November 2012, meaning that reporting suspicious behaviour to the police is the best way to stop your stalker in their tracks. In the UK, there is a National Stalking Helpline, which you should call in the case of an emergency. If it’s not an emergency, call the police. In the US, this website includes links to all of the support lines and relevant authorities to contact in the case of cyber-stalking.
Tighten up your security settings
Your next port of call if you’re being cyber-stalked should be to work out which platform you’re being targeted on and block your stalker on all of them. Then, tighten up your privacy settings on any and all platforms, from Twitter and emails, to any miscellaneous apps you use.
“You want to ensure that any location data or uploaded content is not publicly visible and make sure that a stalker cannot gain access to your accounts by hacking a weak password,” said Jo O’reilly, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.
Digital media security and privacy expert, Nick Gordalex, echoes this sentiment, telling PC Guide that it’s essential that all of your pre-privacy and security settings on your social media as well as your operating system are at the maximum level of protection.
However, Nick warns that this might not be enough: “you can’t just solve [the problem] on your own,” – you have to set boundaries with your friends and family. “Think about your typical weekend,” says Nick, “if…you didn’t post a thing on social media, how many photographs of you in the pub at the bar at the club, whatever, are going to be out there?”
Regardless of whether you post or not, a cyber-stalker may be able to find out your whereabouts by looking at your friends’ posts. So your next step, after locking down your own social media, is to ask your friends and family not to post anything that might lead someone to you.
Update your passwords
Frequently updating your passwords can help to prevent stalkers and hackers from accessing your accounts in the first place. If you do notice something suspicious, or if someone is behaving in a way that seems to threaten your privacy, updating all of your passwords is “vital,” says Jo. This is especially important if you use the same password for more than one account. Jo also advises setting up two-factor authentication where you can, for added peace of mind.
Similarly, Nick says that you should never use default passwords. For the most part this is common sense, but one password that we rarely think to change is our WiFi passwords. If a stalker knows or finds out where you live, and you use a default password for your WiFi, it will be much easier for them to hack into the backend of your devices. As well as your WiFi passwords, make sure to keep updating your phone, email and even your answering machine passwords.
Don’t be alone
This step, Nick considers to be the most important: don’t be alone. In the case that you are being stalked, try to be around people wherever possible. “What [stalkers] try [to] do… is isolate their target,” he warns, “…it makes them more afraid and puts the stalker in control.
“If you feel that is happening, do not be on your own; be with other people… don’t get separated from your friends and family.
“…The more support you [have] the harder [a] target you are”.
Install a decent antivirus software
If you are concerned that someone may have already gained access to your devices, it’s important to make sure you have sufficient antivirus software installed. “This should make sure that any spyware is located and removed,” says Jo, who also stated you should check for malware and spyware regularly.
If your antivirus software tells you that there are no problems, but you have a gut feeling that someone has access to your computer, don’t ignore it. In that instance, it might be time to contact a professional for help, says Jo.
Be aware of suspicious behaviour on your social networks
Being aware of, for lack of a better phrase, weird stuff happening on your social networks, such as trolling, abuse, or even an increase in bots and other fake accounts following you. Likewise, look out for anyone stealing your pictures to catfish others. Luckily, on just about every social media site, you will find options to block and report abusive and inappropriate content, friends, followers or users. “Make use of them,” says Nick.
*Names have been changed to protect individuals.