Over a year of on and off lockdowns and suspended international travel has consolidated phones, laptops and tablets as our primary means of contact with the outside world. As restaurants and dinner parties were out, and Zoom quizzes and FaceTime drinks were in, many of us felt profoundly grateful for technology’s ability to bring us closer together while physical distance was mandated.
There is evidence however, that this social lifeline is being exploited by individuals intent on gaining greater access into our lives. Charities and the authorities have reported a surge in cyberstalking incidents over the last 18 months. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust (a charity working to help and protect victims of stalking) and the National Stalking Helpline, run by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, has seen a 10% increase in calls since March 2020. Currently 100% of the stalking cases now involve some form of a cyber element, which has increased from 80% in 2019 pre-pandemic. The reasons behind this are complex – but boredom and loneliness over the last year are undoubtedly contributing factors. Combine that with high levels of social media use and it’s not surprising that, since the beginning of the first lockdown, 82% of victims stated that social networking sites were used in cyber stalking incidents.
This has been exacerbated by an increased reliance on smart home technology during the lockdowns. While making our lives more comfortable, they have also provided increased opportunities for crime. The police have reported incidents of cyber stalkers accessing smart devices including video doorbells and assistants like Alexa or Siri to target their victims in their own homes during the lockdown.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is generally considered to be harassment that originates online, and can include social networking sites, chat rooms, forums or other means facilitated by technology. It is also recognised that other forms of pre-existing stalking can transfer into online environments.
Cyberstalking can be particularly challenging to address as it’s not always immediately obvious. Even though blocking someone on social media is a useful tool it is difficult to prevent a determined perpetrator from creating fake accounts to keep watch on you and attempt contact. Some victims reported receiving multiple new password requests a day where their stalker was attempting to hack into their account.
There are, however, a number of simple steps you can take to protect yourself online:
Protecting yourself against cyberstalking:
- Strengthen your online security. Make sure you always have a strong password and change it regularly. Even though having the same password for everything is appealing, maintaining strong and unique passwords on your devices and profiles will help protect you from being hacked or from a stalker gaining your personal information. In addition, enabling 2 factor authentication on all of your accounts will ensure they are secure.
- Check your privacy settings. Ideally keep your social media private or consider setting up a separate account if you use it for work purposes. Regardless ensure you have enabled privacy settings to keep personal information private. Be careful about who you accept as followers or friends – this limits fake accounts and those you do not know being able to view your profile. Ensure you have a good anti-virus and anti-malware tool installed on all your devices and install software updates as soon as you can to keep your devices as secure as possible.
- Turn the GPS tracker off in settings. Make sure your location tagging is turned off when you are posting anything online. The majority of social media platforms use GPS tracking and will tag your location; turning this off will limit others being able to view your location. If you have an Apple iPhone ensure that the ‘Find my’ app is secure and you are not sharing your location publicly.
- Take control of your internet presence. Google yourself and see what comes up, you might be surprised at what personal information is publicly accessible. We regularly share email addresses, phone number or our home address and this information can become easily accessible online. Depending on the platform, it may be as simple as contacting the website owner and asking them to remove the content. Though it may be necessary to follow other avenues. You can also remove yourself from the open electoral register by following the steps on the gov.com website.
- Keep records of any suspicious or malicious activity. Be prepared to provide information and access to professionals if an issue does manifest. The ability to identify a culprit and enact a plan quickly will save considerable uncertainty; and often significant cost. Collect screenshots and pictures of messages you receive, as well as profile pages, from where the abuse is coming from ready to show law enforcement if needed.
If you’re worried…
If you have become victim to cyber stalking contact the Police immediately. Cyber stalking is illegal in Britain, for more details and help see here.
For more support you can contact the National Stalking Helpline: 0808 802 0300, or if you are in immediate danger call 999.
All of the statistics in this article are from the April 2021 Suzy Lamplugh Trust report “Unmasking Stalking”