SCR Operations Manager Matt Newton explains what could be behind the recent increase in cyberstalking, and what protective measures we can take.
Our reliance on technology to connect with others, no matter where they might be in the world, has only been consolidated during the pandemic years. Particularly as a social lifeline, technology offers us many positive opportunities – but it can also be 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 two years. From April 2020 – March 2021, there were 98,863 reports of stalking to police, marking a 300% increase on the previous year.
Currently 100% of the stalking cases reported to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust (a charity working to help and protect victims of stalking), who run the National Stalking Helpline, now involve some form of a cyber element. This has increased from 80% in 2019, pre-pandemic.
The reasons behind this rise are complex – but boredom and loneliness over the pandemic years are undoubtedly contributing factors. Combine that with high levels of social media use and it’s not surprising that, since early 2020, 82% of victims stated that social networking sites were used in cyber stalking incidents.
An increased reliance on smart home technology has undoubtedly exacerbated this. While making our lives more comfortable, internet connected devices 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.
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 social media 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.
How to protect yourself
It’s not all bad news, however, and there are a number of simple steps you can take to protect yourself online:
- 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. 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: 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. 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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