Apps easily available online are being used by stalkers to track their victims, a campaign group has warned.
The National Stalking Helpline has warned that stalkers are able to track the whereabouts of their victims, as well as monitoring their conversations – all via apps and spyware available online at a price so cheap that “stalking is becoming legitimised”.
According to the helpline, victims are having their movements tracked, their phone calls listened to or their webcams turned on – and over 200 stalking cases reported to the helpline involved use of such apps, it says.
The number is likely much higher, as many victims will be unaware of having been tracked. Some items – including cameras, bugs and GPS devices – can be “easily disguised as household items”, meaning that many are tracked without realising. One victim told the helpline that a listening device shaped like a USB stick had been put in her handbag – meaning her stalker could listen to all of her conversations. Such devices can be bought on websites including Amazon and eBay – some for less than £20.
And a mother received texts from her ex-partner “detailing the bedtime stories she was telling her stories”: it turned out that he had bought an extension cable with a listening device and placed it in his children’s room.
“They’re really easy to get, they’re really easy to use,” Clare Elcombe-Webber, manager of the helpline, told The Guardian. “I think for some stalkers it really legitimises what they’re doing. The message it sends to victims is there are all these technological advancements that help your stalker, but not you.”
And Jennifer Perry, chief executive of Digital Trust, a charity that supports victims of cyberstalking, said that they “see this regularly”. “They [stalkers] put in listening devices or video devices in the house or tracking devices on the car and you can buy all of that on Amazon,” she said.
“We had one client who went home, her laptop was on, she had a shower, she then got a message from her stalker saying ‘Did you have a nice shower?’” said Elcombe-Webber. “It’s that kind of invasion and not knowing how that person is able to see you. Are they outside? Are they in the house? It’s really really frightening.”
From December 2015 to December 2016, nearly 5,000 (4,613) stalking offences were recorded by the police. But during the same period, nearly 5% of women said they had experienced stalking – meaning that, as with many crimes, it is being dramatically underreported.
The police have also been criticised for their treatment of stalking victims.
Victim Helen Pearson contacted the police 125 times to report her stalker – but nothing happened until she was stabbed with a pair of scissors.
“I feel like that shouldn’t have happened, it shouldn’t have been like that,” she said.
“All I can hope is that what happened to me means police officers get more training and deal with victims of stalking better - so that no-one else has to go through what I did.”
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