Nowhere to Hide: Cyberstalking Surges

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Photo by Getty Images/Marco_Piunti.

In this ever more cyber-savvy world, a stalker can attach a device smaller than a dime to your car to find out where you go. They can peer at you when you think you’re alone by hiding a tiny “nanny cam” in your home or commandeering your webcam from a distance. They can hack into your iCloud account to track your email, “clone” your phone to get your calls when you do, and use malware to know what you type as you type.

“Cameras have been found in pens, stuffed animals, smoke detectors, ceiling lights, behind light switches and elsewhere,” says Michele Minor Wolf, executive director of Victims’ Intervention Program (VIP) of Wayne and Pike Counties, in Pennsylvania.

VIP assists victims of stalking as well as domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and other crimes.  On a recent day, Wolf hovered by tables with piles of VIP brochures, set up by a sidewalk in the small town of Milford, PA, to introduce their services.

“There’s a huge increase in cyberstalking by intimate partners,” she said. “It gets dangerous after the victim leaves the relationship because the stalker gets angry about the loss of control. So they use technology to track email, phone calls, texts, and GPS locations. They can access your phone and computer without getting their hands on the devices. They can track you even if the location function on your device is turned off.”

A woman who attended the sidewalk introduction asked to remain unnamed, having been stalked by her husband for over 20 years, probably beginning before they married, she said. She met him in college, but although they did not date then, he probably tracked her. After she graduated and had a job somewhere else, he appeared at her workplace and asked her out, which was flattering at the time, she said. When they married and had children, his behavior was only intermittently problematic, but his need for control escalated. He limited where she could go and what she could wear.

One day, he mentioned what she had been wearing at home hours earlier, though he was not there. She realized he had cameras around their house, following her, and she called police. She would later find that he had “cloned” her phone, so her calls went to him at the same time she received them. He implanted malware in her computer to find out what she typed as she typed, and he tracked her car with a GPS device.

Stalkers get attention when they shadow politicians and film stars, or when they take revenge on a relative or co-worker, but the majority are former or current partners, says Wolf.

“They may also be love-scorned acquaintances, but they’re rarely strangers,” she says. “And they’re not typically scraggly outsiders. They’re smart. It takes intelligence to stalk someone. They’re professionals, business people, and churchgoers.”

What they have in common is their narcissism and obsessive need for control, she says.

“They’re self-centered. It’s all about them. They put the blame on the other person. Their view is, ‘You were mine. You don’t have the right to leave me.’ The obsession feeds on itself, fueled by the thrill of frightening the victim,” says Wolf. That ability to terrorize is enhanced by technology.

According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), 16 percent of women and 5 percent of men have experienced stalking in their lifetime. More than 50 percent of victims who were stalked reported that the perpetrator had approached them or showed up at places they frequented, threatened physical harm, damaged personal property, left unwanted text or voice messages, or made unwanted telephone calls.

Chillingly, 27 percent of stalkers pursuing women, and 18 percent targeting men, snuck into their victim’s house or car, according to the 2018 National Center for Victims of Crime stalking fact sheet. Weapons are used to harm or threaten victims in one out of five cases, according to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC) fact sheet.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t really annual estimates for stalking prevalence generally or for cyberstalking specifically,” says Dana Michelle Fleitman, SPARC Associate Advisor. “Different researchers use different definitions of stalking, which can affect the prevalence rates.”

In Wayne County, PA, a rural county of 51,000, cyberstalking reports nearly tripled from 2017 to 2018, increasing from 40 to 115, says Wolf.  But other cases have likely gone unreported.

“It takes victims so long to go to police, because they’re often not believed if police are not well trained,” she says.

According to a Bureau of Justice report, less than 40 percent of stalking victims reported that police took action against the perpetrator; 32 percent of victims reported that law enforcement spoke to or warned the offender, while just 8 percent reported that the stalker had been arrested. Typical actions taken by law enforcement in response to stalking complaints were to take a report (55 percent of incidents), talk to or warn an offender (32 percent), and to suggest a protection order (20 percent). Almost 20 percent of stalking victims reported that law enforcement took no action in response to their complaints.

Technology gives stalkers more information about their victims while escalating victims’ terror. In 2018, Ellen Weik, 23, disappeared from her home in West Chester, Ohio, four months after she reported receiving threatening anonymous messages and videos of herself, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. While friends described Weik as living in constant fear, police were slow to track the messages, which, as Weik suspected, came from an ex-boyfriend. After she disappeared, her remains were found buried near his home.

“Stalking often goes unrecognized, underreported and overlooked, especially when it entails the use of technology,” says Jennifer Landhuis, director of SPARC. We strive to improve criminal justice and allied professionals’ ability to identify and respond to issues of stalking, as we know that stalking, when coinciding with intimate partner violence, is a lethal combination. With stalking, we’re where we were with domestic violence a few decades ago, when victims and victim advocates worked to change the criminal justice response, to ensure that it was taken seriously and that it was viewed as a crime.”

SPARC staff recommend that victim advocates and police use the Stalking and Harassment Assessment and Risk Profile (SHARP) in stalking cases, a risk assessment tool available for free online.

Different states legally define stalking in different ways, contributing to divergences in police response. Some require showing an intent to create fear, as in Ohio; others only that a reasonable person would be afraid. However, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime stalking fact sheet, stalking preceded 76 percent of intimate partner homicides, and 54 percent of victims of intimate partner homicides had reported being stalked to police. Stalkers were violent with victims in 25-35 percent of cases.

However, West Chester police classified Weik’s case as “telecommunications harassment,” of which they had 131 reports that year, according to the Enquirer. Only three arrests resulted. Meanwhile, they had only four stalking convictions in the five years ending in 2018, despite 87 complaints, and no stalking convictions in 2017 and 2018.

“Too often, victims have nothing concrete to show,” says Wolf. “We advise keeping a log of incidents, for instance seeing the same car parked nearby repeatedly, or the perpetrator showing up, with dates, times and witnesses.”

Cyberstalking often begins subtly, she says. “It starts slowly, builds, and escalates. The victim may be at a restaurant with a friend, and the ex-partner appears. It seems odd that they know about a get-together arranged by email. Then they show up at the library or supermarket. It couldn’t be a coincidence. When people have a gut feeling, there’s usually something to it.”

Unaddressed, stalking can go on for years, Wolf says. “The perpetrator wants to ruin the victim.”

Victims become afraid to go out, so they isolate themselves from friends and family, she says. Their constant fear and state of alertness can become post-traumatic stress disorder, as with war veterans. Closure can be hard to come by. They may get some relief when the stalker finds a new partner, who likely then becomes their stalking target.

Cyberstalking is often accompanied by other kinds of abuse, says Shelley Robinson, Wayne County assistant district attorney, who has prosecuted numerous stalking cases.

“Victims of digital abuse and harassment are twice as likely to be physically abused, 2.5 times as likely to be psychologically abused, and five times as likely to be sexually coerced,” she says.

Robinson often sees cyberstalking victims who receive 30 to 50 emails or texts daily from the stalker—about six cases a year.

“They keep texting, and a woman with children fears escalation, so she responds. He’ll say it’s a conversation. But no, he harassed her until she gave in,” says Robinson.

However, once a Protection From Abuse order is issued, directing no contact, even a happy birthday message becomes a violation.

“No contact means no contact, good, bad or otherwise. Even a message through a third party can constitute a violation,” she says.

In Pennsylvania, a second violation can cost the stalker seven years in jail and thousands of dollars. If the stalker even sends Christmas wishes, disregarding a PFA, Robinson advises calling police to prevent further contact.

With technology’s intrusive potential, she is also concerned about children having smartphones. “No wonder there’s so much sextortion,” she says. “A predator says, ‘You’re so beautiful. Send me a photo of you in a bikini.’ Then they ask for one in a bra. Then bare. And they threaten, ‘If you don’t, I’ll send the ones I have to your friends and parents.’ One in four photos found in a child predator’s files are selfies.”

Robinson also sees cases of girls sending boyfriends photos of themselves minimally clothed that later get passed around. Those photos may be hidden from parents by apps that look like calculators or something else innocuous.

With technology, she says, “Bullying goes on 24/7.” Some cases have resulted in suicide, which has been increasing among children, likely exacerbated by isolating absorption in social media that displaces neighborhood play, according to a Washington Post analysis of suicide statistics.

However, Robinson contends that the solution is likely to be found in education rather than more laws. “Kids need to be educated about what’s okay and what’s not,” she says. 

The increase in cyberstalking cases prompted Wolf to pursue a grant to provide a cyberstalking training that was led by James Dill, retired deputy chief for the Pennsylvania attorney general. Participants included victim advocates, law enforcement officers, school staff, and social service workers.

Dill was a law enforcement officer with the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General for 30 years, primarily working in the Investigative Technology Unit.  He handled cases involving both law enforcement use of investigative technology as well as perpetrators’ exploitation of technology for stalking, harassment, and sextortion. He agrees with Wolf that domestic disputes generate the majority of victims, but predators stalking students are a close second, he says.

“In my classes, I cite dozens of examples relayed to me by police officers all over the country,” he says.

He encountered one incident while instructing a group of judges. A judge asked him to speak at his daughter’s school. When she was 14, she became involved with a boy two years older, who pressured her to send him a nude photo. Months later, they broke up, and the boy sent the photo to other students.  She was so embarrassed that she refused to go back to school and turned to home schooling. The boy was charged with distribution of child pornography, a felony offense.

Dill also recalls the 2010 case of Sean Burton, then 42, owner of Final Impact, a car stereo and alarm store in Morton, PA. He planted a GPS tracking device on the car belonging to his estranged wife’s boyfriend, tracked him to a shopping center, and stabbed him 70 times with a butcher’s knife. 

Then, in 2013, Miss Teen USA was sextorted after a stalker put malware in her computer and used her computer camera to take pictures of her, “in various stages of undress,” Dill says. 

He also noted the case of a Houston woman tracked by her ex-boyfriend using a Tile device designed for keeping track of keys and other small items. The ex kept track of her by attaching the device to her glove compartment.

“When I first worked in this field, surveillance equipment was expensive, complicated to use and limited to law enforcement and the military,” says Dill. “Now anyone with a credit card can purchase extremely sophisticated, simple to use spy equipment—even on Amazon.”

Social media and nanny cameras have become the most common cyberstalking tools, he says.

“People use nanny cameras because they’re so inexpensive and readily available. And everyone understands how to use social media, but most don’t comprehend how it works and what personal information is collected,” says Dill.  “Many people use social media to share their location with friends, but don’t properly set their security settings, or they accept individuals as friends that they don’t really know.  In addition, simple GPS and Bluetooth devices are being repurposed for stalking.”

Asked how to minimize vulnerability to cyberstalking, Dill says, “People need to read the privacy policy and terms of service on the apps and social media they use.  Once they understand what permissions they are actually granting, they can take steps to limit their exposure by setting their security settings.”

As for preventing someone from watching you via a hacked webcam, Dill suggests powering down laptops and covering cameras that are not in use, using anti-virus programs and online scanners, and keeping operating systems up-to-date.

In general, he says, “If you think someone might know your User ID and password, change it.”

Preventing GPS tracking is more challenging. GPS “jammers” are available online, though illegal in the U.S., Dill says. He suggests physically searching the vehicle for tiny devices, but some are so small that a forensic expert might be needed, says Wolf.

Meanwhile, as technology that enables stalking proliferates, so do protective devices. For instance, says Robinson, “spoofing software” can enable a caller to bring up a false caller ID, but someone leaving an abusive relationship can set up a “digital number,” a phone number tied to an individual, not a telephone. 

“So if you have kids with your ex, you can give him the digital number and set it to do various things, such as go directly to voicemail when phone number X calls, or ring to your cellphone, but you would know it was coming from your digital number,” she says. “If you only provide the digital number to your ex, you know where it comes from, no matter what the caller ID is.  It’s a way for victims to take control over the situation.”

However, she says, “There are definitely products out there that are so well hidden that you would never know they existed.  I’ve seen cameras in alarm clocks, wall clocks and soda cans. They’re so tiny, they could be just about anywhere.” 

Jessica Cohen is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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