It’s easier than ever to stay in touch with people you know — including the ones you really don’t want to hear from.
Growing numbers of men and women report being pursued by stalkers via cell phones, Internet services, GPS systems, wireless video cameras, and other technologies, according to law-enforcement agencies and victims’ groups.
“Technology is more widely available, and so stalkers have more tools to use against their victims,” says Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance.
Of the 3.4 million Americans who reported being stalked between 2005 and 2006 — up from 1.4 million annual cases a decade earlier — according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 27% reported being cyberstalked, or stalked through computer programs, while one in 13 said their stalkers used tracking devices to monitor their locations.
E-mail and instant messaging are the most common stalking methods, according to the Justice Department— 83% of victims reported getting unwanted e-mails from their stalkers and 35% reported getting instant messages.
Six percent said that their stalkers stole their identities to open or close financial accounts in their names, steal funds from their existing accounts, or make unauthorized charges to their credit cards.
Marling recalls one man whose ex-girlfriend infiltrated his computer via a Wi-Fi account and repeatedly posted content onto his Web site in his name.
“People who become tech-savvy, as perpetrators they can find weak spots,” he says.
High-tech stalking comes in many forms:
• Caller ID. The Caller ID systems on many new phones reveal callers’ names and locations. Using an online phone directory, a stalker can pinpoint a victim’s new place of residence.
• Cell phones. Whenever a victim’s cell phone is in analogue mode, a radio scanner can intercept it.
• GPS services. A Wisconsin woman wondered at her ex-boyfriend’s ability to continually find her whenever she was driving her car. Then she discovered the global positioning device he had installed beneath her car ’s front grill. Many stalkers use these devices, which pinpoint carriers’ exact locations, to track victims. Telephone-based instant-messenger services and some cell phones’ location services are also potential tracking tools.
“Every cell phone has its own identifier, so you can theoretically know the location someone is in,” says Marling. “It’s definitely a growing problem.”
• Spyware. A Michigan man remotely installed a software program on his estranged wife’s computer; the program would e-mail him daily notifications listing all the sites she visited and the contents of every e-mail she sent or received. Stalkers can also use keystroke loggers, which record every key typed and thus disclose passwords, PINs, Web sites, and e-mails.
• Cameras. Cameras today are more powerful, less expensive, smaller, and easier than ever to secretly place inside a wall. A New Jersey man monitored his ex-wife daily through a video camera in her bedroom.
• Public databases. A surprising amount of information about individuals is public record. For example, the court system of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, publishes the names and addresses of individuals who obtain protective orders.
• Headers on fax documents. One woman fled an abusive partner, but had to send him papers. She faxed her attorney papers from her shelter’s fax machine, and he in turn faxed them to the abusive partner’s attorney, who passed them along to him. The woman’s partner spotted the shelter location on the fax head and tracked her down, forcing her to relocate a second time.
• E-mail and instant messages. Stalkers send their victims abusive messages. They can also impersonate their victims by sending out messages in the victims’ names. One abuser changed his wife’s e-mail password and sent threatening messages to himself from her e-mail account. Then he took the messages to the police and convinced them to arrest her.
Defending against Stalkers.
Stalkers who use e-mail and other electronic means are sometimes harder for law enforcement to stop. Michelle Garcia, executive director of the Stalking Resource Center, notes that many investigators don’t know how to prove that a stalker’s e-mails came from the stalker — consequently, they don’t count e-mails as evidence.
“We have to get our responders up to speed on how to trace those technologies back to the offenders,” she says.
Technology can also protect victims, however. The Internet is a means to find counselors, employment agencies, housing opportunities, shelters, and support services. It also provides forums for victims to share their stories with each other.
Meanwhile, communities have become much better-equipped to confront stalking. In the last 10 years, new programs for training law enforcement officers, new victims’ support services, and tougher laws have all been introduced.
The Justice Department report offers some advice for keeping safe from stalkers:
• Know who calls you. Use per call (*67) when you get an unknown call, and make sure your phone has caller ID.
• Keep your contact information private. Clear your name from any database that might be published or sold from one company to another.
• Do not send any confidential information via a personal computer. Use a library computer, which a stalker will not be able to track. Marling further advises destroying as much personal information as possible and routinely checking your computer for viruses and intruder programs.
“You have to be smarter than your stalker,” says Marling.