Social media, tracking devices and apps – the rise of online stalking since the start of the pandemic

Women are being threatened and harassed more, and in new ways, since the beginning of the pandemic with stalkers using social media, texting, tracking devices, digital doorbells, apps and even platforms like Spotify to pursue their victims. Here, women who have been targeted tell their stories. 

Warning: this story contains details about stalking and domestic violence 

New findings show that since the beginning of the pandemic there has been a substantial rise in stalking.

The Unmasking Stalking report, published in late April by The Suzy Lamplugh Trust – a charity that campaigns for better protection for victims of stalking – shows that for those whose experience of stalking started before the first lockdown, half of the respondents (49%) confirmed an increase in online behaviours throughout the pandemic, while a third (32%) also saw a rise in offline behaviours. 

The report demonstrates a rise in the frequency and intensity of online stalking. The most common of these are via social media and texting but as Stylist has found, stalkers are also taking advantage of new technologies – such as tracking devices, apps and digital doorbells. Sending of unwanted letters and gifts are cited as common offline behaviours, highlighting how perpetrators have adapted to social distancing restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic.

The National Stalking Helpline says that 100% of stalking cases reported to their helpline now have cyber elements to them, compared to 80% in 2019 prior to the pandemic. Victims quoted in the report say stalkers have been using the lockdown restrictions to their advantage. For instance, using the allowed daily exercise lockdown rules to follow or monitor the victim, or using masks to aid their anonymity on CCTV and in person.

The study showed that 60% of victims who reported stalking to the police in the UK said they have no legal protections in place, and only a third (34%) indicated that their case was subsequently brought to court. Victims complained that police often didn’t recognise what they described as stalking, did not understand the nature of stalking or that their complaint was not taken seriously or acted upon. 

One victim quoted in the report said: “The pandemic has emboldened the stalker and the use of cyberstalking has increased as has his use of enlisting others to assist with the stalking which has increased my risk of danger.” Another said: “I’ve received over 200 password reset links to my new phone number and email address that the stalker has requested.”

The National Stalking Helpline has seen a 10% increase in calls since March 2020. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust received nearly 20,000 calls in the last year, over 50 calls per day. 

According to the British Crime Survey, up to 700,000 women in England and Wales alone are victims of stalking each year, while one in 20 women and one in 50 men have experienced some form of stalking in 2020. 

Despite an increase in reports of stalking, figures from the Home Office show that conviction levels are falling, seeing a reduction from 49% to 30% between 2014-2017, when the last stats were released.

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Laura’s story

Laura*, 26, from Belfast was violently assaulted by her ex-boyfriend after enduring an abusive relationship. The attack resulted in a trip to hospital due to broken ribs, damage to her jaw and extensive bruising and swelling. 

Laura was lucky to survive the attack, which left her with concussion so extreme she couldn’t stand for over a week. After the assault, the stalking started.

Laura has been stalked by her ex for the past year but as the attack happened in Northern Ireland – where there are no laws to prosecute on stalking (a petition to introduce changes has reached just over 650 signatures after being live for a year) – she has been forced to pursue justice through limited and archaic harassment laws. 

Even with police intervention, he continues to harass her. “He would show up outside my work and drive past so slowly that there would be cars in a queue behind him.” 

The attacker entered Laura’s apartment building with a spare key fob over 100 times in a month, sometimes spending the night in the building’s corridors. “I thought I was going crazy. At first I noticed small things like the doormat being moved and the light in the hall sensor was always on.”

After many calls to the police to log her experiences, her ex was finally arrested near her building.

Laura has met with politicians and continues to campaign for changes to the stalking laws in Northern Ireland. She has secured several non-molestation orders – the only protection the courts can offer her against her ex – but he has unlimited access to her daily life online, where he continues to harass and taunt her. 

“I had hundreds of password change request emails every week at the beginning. He spent hours every day trying to hack my social media profiles and creating fake accounts to try and follow me. He used our combined Google Home accounts to try and request my new location after I moved. He changed all of my information in my Apple Pay account to his, meaning anything I bought online was delivered to him.”

Before Laura was able to leave the home they shared, as she waited for the lease to expire, her ex would use their doorbell that was linked to his phone to find out who was coming and going to the property. “He would sit outside the flat for hours at a time, and if a friend came over, he would find them online and ‘wave’ to them on Facebook, so that I knew he was nearby.”

He then created a fake account on Instagram, which he used to post about her new partner and send her abusive messages.

“Eventually I bought a new phone because no matter what I did and no matter how many passwords I changed, he still seemed to be able to know what I was saying.”

The police told Laura he may have planted a listening device in her home or in her phone, but they didn’t have the capacity to check for that. “I would have to have hired an independent forensics team to check for listening devices, so I just had to replace everything.”

When her ex drilled peep holes in the fence at her new property, it prompted Laura to take more serious action, “I now have state of the art CCTV installed in my home and am in regular contact with the police, should anything concerning happen again.”

Once Laura had moved out and blocked her ex in every way she could, he started using Spotify, one of the only social media platforms that does not offer a blocking feature to stalk her.

“He only follows me and one other person. He created a playlist which is titled with the last thing he ever said to me, as I laid bloodied on the floor and he walked out of the apartment.”  The playlist has been compiled with song titles that form threats and insults. 

“Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid about the playlists, but this is a man who has done everything he can to stalk and intimidate me.  Victims of stalking like me have reached out to Spotify but they haven’t put us first.” 

Despite pleas from Spotify users for a blocking feature Spotify is yet to introduce any protective measures, even though the first formal request for such a feature was made on a post in the forums in 2013.

When contacted for comment a representative from Spotify told Stylist: “Spotify takes user concerns very seriously and our product team is actively exploring options that would give users the ability to remove or block followers in the future. In the meantime, our Customer Support team can help users create a new account, hide their activity, and/or use private mode when listening. This is something we’re taking very seriously and looking to move on as quickly as we can.” 

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Megan’s story

Megan*, 28, from Edinburgh, didn’t realise she was being stalked at first. “I was working in my parents’ shop when a middle-aged man came in. I was only 16. He started speaking to me and I talked back to make small talk.”

The man asked for her phone number and she felt pressured to give it to him. “I didn’t think too much of it, although he was creepy; a lot of men are creepy towards you when you’re a teenage girl. I didn’t want to offend him by saying no.”

“I would see him on nights out in clubs and bars in my hometown. This was a man well into his 50s going to bars frequented by young people, very often underage teenagers.”

When he saw Megan, he would offer to buy drinks for her and her friends and bombard her with questions. Too afraid to make a scene, Megan would try and politely avoid him, but he was persistent.

“He would ask me when my exams were, when my birthday was, etc. He was very much aware I was in school and a child. Each time I spoke to him, I would receive cards to my house – like ‘good luck in your exams’ or birthday cards – with messages from him telling me he loved me and that we would be together some day.”

Megan didn’t feel like the harassment was worthy of police attention. “At 16 I kept telling myself it wasn’t that bad, and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.”

Megan now lives overseas but the experience is one that comes back to her every time she reads about other women who have been stalked. “Even now sometimes I think I cannot be 100% sure he stalked me, if it was stalking, but I know how unsafe it made me feel. No one should be made to feel like that by another person. You are forever scared of being alone.”

Laura shares this sentiment. Her court case has finished, for now, but as she tries to rebuild her life, she’s dealing with the realisation that for her, this may never be over. “I just want to know if he’s done with stalking me, if I can move on and live my life but I know I may never get that closure.”

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The Suzy Lamplugh Trust has published a list of recommendations within the new Unmasking Stalking report. These include asking the government to commit to adequately funding specialist stalking support services and a call for a national task group to examine closely the low levels of prosecutions. The report also makes recommendations about the way perpetrators must be managed and rehabilitated and calls for specialist stalking training across the criminal justice system. 

Suky Bhaker, CEO of Suzy Lamplugh Trust, says: “Our report demonstrates that the pandemic has clearly not deterred stalkers. Victims’ lives continue to be devastated, as they experience ongoing threats of violence and psychological terror. Stalkers who have a propensity towards this behaviour have had more time on their hands since the pandemic; some may have been furloughed or lost their jobs, enhancing obsessive and fixated behaviour.

“Victims are saying that their overall experience with the criminal justice system is unsatisfactory. Victims cite a lack of recognition by the police as well as court delays, among other reasons. We believe this demonstrates a concerning lack of understanding of stalking behaviour among many police and prosecutors. An urgent review of the way the criminal justice system tackles stalking is required.

“Our report does highlight areas of best practice towards victims by police, which must be replicated to ensure that stalking victims are supported and protected both during and beyond the pandemic.” 

Stalking is illegal in Britain and should be reported to the police. For details on how to report a stalker see here

If you or anyone you know in immediate danger call 999. Victims of stalking can also get help and support is available through the National Stalking Helpline: 0808 802 0300 or The Suzy Lamplugh Trust

For help and support with domestic violence, call Refuge’s 24-hour national helpline on 0808 2000 247.

*Name and location has been changed. 

Images: Getty. 

Additional reporting: Katy Harrington. 


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