April 19th - 23rd is National Stalking Awareness Week in the UK, and a year of isolation and tech-dependency during the Covid-19 lockdowns has seen a surge in cyberstalking cases .
And it’s illegal, whether the stalking happens over email, social media, or instant messages. Victims of cyberstalking often endure months of harassment, and some perpetrators can even abuse victims' smart gadgets to monitor them in their own home.
Jilted ex-lovers, identity fraudsters, and infatuated individuals – cyberstalkers come with all sorts of motives, but they can be stopped, and in light of National Stalking Awareness Week, we’ve put together some tips on how to do just that.
The effects of cyberstalking
What begins as one or two unexpected DMs on Facebook can quickly cross the line into harassment. When a victim is systematically receiving abusive, invasive, or unwelcome messages, it becomes cyberstalking.
Cyberstalking takes place over an extended period of time, like months or even years, and victims often go on to suffer from lasting psychological effects – posttraumatic stress, anxiety, and depression to name a few.
Unsurprisingly, women are more frequently the target of cyberstalkers. A crime survey for England and Wales reported that, in 2020, around 1 in 20 women had suffered from cyberstalking, compared to 1 in 50 men. But the total number of victims in England and Wales is still staggering. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust claims that there are almost 1.5 million victims of cyberstalking per year.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust also reported that, thanks to the Covid-19 lockdowns intensifying victims’ sense of isolation and vulnerability, calls to its National Stalking Helpline had soared by nearly 10% since March 2020.
Job loss or furlough could play a part in explaining this statistical increase, with stalkers potentially having more free time to target their victims.
It’s incredibly disheartening to see the same technology that so many of us rely on to stay connected during these difficult times used to intimidate and harass. And, as mentioned earlier, some stalkers have begun to infiltrate the smart devices in a victims’ home.
A tech-savvy perpetrator can cause havoc this way. Hacking these devices allows them to keep tabs on the victim as they come and go, turn off their lights, adjust temperature settings, play music, and even trigger alarms.
Tips to prevent cyberstalking
Cyberstalking is criminalized in the UK under the Protection from Harassment Act, but it's difficult to report, seeing as stalkers go to great lengths to maintain their anonymity. But don’t lose hope! There’s still plenty a person can do to deter cyberstalkers and enjoy the internet without the constant threat of harassment.
🤫Keep a low profile
It’s second nature to share every facet of our lives online, but it’s also a cyberstalker’s dream. Avoid using your actual name wherever you can, don’t publicly share your phone number or address, and think twice before announcing upcoming plans over Facebook.
👁🗨Adjust your settings
Privacy settings can change frequently, so it’s worth checking that your social media profiles are up to date. They’ll often let you customize exactly who can follow you and comment on your posts – so leverage those tools!
Update your PC and mobile whenever updates are pending – don’t put them off! They contain patches that can address vulnerabilities and data leaks that a stalker could, otherwise, take advantage of.
⛔️Conceal your IP address
Every internet-enabled device has an IP address that a stalker can use to determine your location and, sometimes, your financial details. A VPN can put a stop to this, though! When connected to a VPN, your IP address will be cloaked and hidden from any nosey cyberstalkers.
And if you do find yourself caught in an instance of cyberstalking, you can:
- Block the individual - this might not deter your stalker completely, but it can defuse a high-stress situation.
- Hold on to evidence - screenshot messages and back them up somewhere safe. The more you can provide for the authorities, the easier it’ll be for them to take action if they become involved.
- If you’re in immediate danger - call 999 right away.
- If not… - then you can still reach out to your local police force by calling 101.
Check out my guide on how to handle online harassment for more tips on prevention and how people do this.
The UK is lucky to have a number of proactive charities with resources, advice, and support available to victims of cyberstalking and harassment. You can reach out online or over the phone – just don’t suffer in silence!
- The Suzy Lamplugh Trust operates the National Stalking Hotline, and advocates for an end to violence and aggression.
- Paladin campaigns to raise awareness about stalking whilst also supporting high-risk victims.
- And Refuge, in addition to empowering women and girls who’ve been victims of domestic abuse, offers a variety of resources regarding virtual harassment.