SCR Operations Manager, Matt Newton explains what could be behind the recent increase in cyberstalking, and what protective measures we can take.
For the majority of people across the globe, our reliance on technology to connect with family, friends and co-workers no matter where we are located, is just part of our modern world.
Strengthened further throughout the pandemic – when the world of working from home and zoom quizzes meant technology was not only a work necessity, but a social lifeline – this dependence on the internet has only served to intensify over subsequent years.
However, while technology offers us many positive opportunities, the negative consequences of such increased reliance on the internet or other electronic communications cannot be ignored. In many cases, technology has exposed us to vulnerabilities that were unheard of even twenty years ago – such as online harassment, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking – rates of which are growing in frequency and severity as technology evolves.
Charities and the authorities have reported a surge in cyberstalking incidents in recent years. From April 2020 – March 2021, there were 98,863 reports of stalking to police, marking a 300% increase on the previous year and since 2020, there has been a 20% rise in calls to the National Stalking Helpline about cyberstalking.
Following a survey conducted in March 2023 among young people aged 16-24, Suzy Lamplugh Trust (a charity working to help and protect victims of stalking) found that 77% of respondents had experienced some sort of stalking, and 84% of this group reported that this had taken place online.
The digital world has now opened up a new realm for cyberstalking, where perpetrators can take full advantage of victims. A key reason for this rise can be seen in the high levels of social media use – especially among young people – our ‘always on’ world, and a lack of protections against crimes such as cyberstalking online. With the Online Safety Bill still in progress, children and young people online continue to be exposed.
An increased reliance on smart home technology has undoubtedly also exacerbated this increase. While making our lives more comfortable, internet connected devices have also provided increased opportunities for crime, with perpetrators using smart home technology and bugging devices to gain access to victims. 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.
What is cyberstalking?
Protection Against Stalking, a charity that offers help to stalking victims, describes stalking as “ a pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent, intrusive and causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim”.
Cyberstalking is an extension of this, including any form of online harassment where perpetrators use technology to send threatening messages, calls or photos to their victims. Cyberstalking can additionally include gaining access to online accounts, the sharing of private information and sexual harassment. It is recognised that other forms of pre-existing harassment or stalking can transfer into online environments.
Dealing with cyberstalking can be particularly challenging and can be difficult to address as it’s not always immediately obvious. It’s important to remember that there are cyberstalking laws in England and Wales that make online harassment and stalking illegal.
How to protect yourself and prevent cyberstalking
A great place to start is to block the person on social media. However, it is hard to stop a determined perpetrator from creating fake accounts to monitor and contact you. Some victims reported receiving multiple new password requests a day where their stalker was attempting to hack into their account.
But, there are a number of simple steps you can take to protect yourself online:
1. Strengthen your online security.
Make sure you always have strong passwords and change them regularly. Having the same password for everything is appealing – but 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. If you are worried about forgetting your passwords, you can keep them safe using a password manager. In addition, enabling 2 factor-authentication on all of your accounts is essential to ensuring they are secure.
2. Check your privacy settings.
Ideally keep your social media account 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 cautious when you add followers or friends and only accept friend requests from those you know. This will help prevent perpetrators who create fake social media accounts and strangers from viewing 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.
3. Turn the GPS tracker off in settings.
Check your geolocation settings and make sure your location tagging is turned off when you are posting anything online. Most social media platforms use GPS tracking. If you turn this off, others won’t be 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 or with anyone you don’t know.
4. 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 numbers 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.
5. 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 any text messages or instant messages that 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. Cyberstalking 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.
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