Technology has given us many gifts: Phones that are also cameras. Cars that read our text messages out loud for us. An entire library inside a computer the size of a notebook.
Unfortunately, technology has also given those who want to cause us harm an advantage. When abusers become stalkers, their options to keep track of survivors are many. We asked Elaina Roberts, legal director with the Stalking Resource Center, a division of the National Center for Victims of Crime, to tell us about some of the high-tech tactics stalkers use to victimize their targets.
DomesticShelters: First off, how do you know if someone is stalking you or just being annoyingly overbearing?
Roberts: Stalking is a pattern of behavior, usually two or more incidents, directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. What we’re talking about is calls, texts, driving past a person’s house, showing up at their work. By themselves, these incidents may not be criminal, but stalking criminalizes these behaviors. Stalking is an extension of power and control. The majority of stalkers are current or former intimate partners. We’ve found, in 57 percent of cases, victims who are stalked by intimate partners indicated the stalking occurred while the relationship was intact and there was already domestic violence happening. That means that when you have a relationship where domestic violence is present, it’s likely that stalking behaviors are also going on.
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DS: Talk about geotagging. What is that and how do stalkers use it to keep tabs on a victim?
Roberts: Whether you’re taking a digital photograph with your phone or your camera, there’s information embedded in that photograph called metadata. It includes what type of camera is used, if the flash was on, the exposure, etc. But what’s troubling is it will also tell you the date, time and exact location of where the photo was taken and even provide you a map. Our cell phones are automatically set to have geolocation turned on, and a lot of victims don’t realize their phones are tracking them and storing their last location. [Here’s information about turning off geotagging on your iPhone and iPad, and information about turning it off on Android devices.]
DS: Facebook and Twitter supposedly strip this information, but Google, Tumblr, Dropbox and email servers don’t, correct?
Roberts: Yes, but I would never advise a victim that they’re safe posting a photo on [social media]. The reality is, these sites could change their policies this afternoon. I knew a woman who uploaded a photo to a family photo album online that her former partner was monitoring. He was able to find her.
DS: What is “spoofing” and how can abusers use this to harass a survivor?
Roberts: Spoofing provides for anonymity when calling or texting the victim. The victim doesn’t know who’s calling or texting so she [or he] thinks it’s their mom or best friend or [their child’s] school. The stalker can add background noise, change their voice from male to female and can record the calls. Let’s say I want to appear as though victim’s mom is calling her. But when the victim goes to call back and hits redial, it will actually call mom back. It doesn’t call the stalker.
DS: That sounds like a nightmare to prove in court.
Roberts: Being able to prove it is really difficult. The offender might spoof himself to make it look like he’s the victim, and then go to court and say, no it’s her calling me. The offender’s cell phone bill will be riddled with her phone number, but if you look at hers, there won’t be any outgoing calls to him.
However, the technology itself is not illegal. And part of why is because there actually is a legitimate function. If I’m a small business owner and I don’t want them to have my personal cell phone number, or I’m a doctor or nurse on call, I might spoof my number. Also, many spoof companies exist outside of the US and are not bound by any of our laws. They might get subpoenas for information, but they don’t have to comply.
But the use of spoofing technology to harass, defraud, cause harm, harass or intimidate someone is illegal. The FCC can levy [a fine of] up to $10,000 per violation. Additionally, criminal charges for harassment, telephone harassment, etc, can be filed against an individual engaging in this behavior.
DS: How can a victim help protect him or herself?
Roberts: Download and print all of your phone records for court. Your stalker is going to show up and say, ‘Look, I’m not calling her. You don’t see her number anywhere on my bill,’ and he’s right—it won’t show her number. It’ll show random numbers. But what you have to do is compare—at the same time he’s making outgoing calls or text to random numbers, there should be incoming calls and texts to the victim’s phone. It should match up pretty accurately. You can show the judge you’re being spoofed.
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In terms of safety, victims should set up plans with family—maybe mom calls three times in a row and the victim will know it’s her, or mom will call and let the phone ring three times, and then call back.
For more tips on what to do if you’re the victim of stalking, read “If You’re Being Stalked.”
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