Stalking and Domestic Abuse – use of covert surveillance (updated 2022)

Contents

  • -Background
  • -How to identify it has/is happening
  • -Potential signs of covert surveillance  (not exhaustive)
  • -How to help prevent it happening and what to do about it
  • -Dealing with a person who believes they are being stalked
  • -Covert Surveillance – some key advice for victims

Background

In mid-May 2019, The Mail on Sunday published a short article in which Amazon were accused of encouraging stalking, by making available for sale a number of different types of GPS tracking devices aimed specifically at the distrusting partner market, in other words to people who suspect their partners of having an affair. However, whilst this was the retailers selling point, the news piece was about individuals who use these devices to aid them in stalking their victim’s, regardless of whether they are current or former partners, associates or complete strangers. The criticism quite rightly came from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, who run the National Stalking Helpline. They and other safeguarding organisations have identified that the use of covert surveillance technology is becoming more and more popular, not helped by the ease at which a perpetrator can purchase equipment.

Two months before, the Domestic Homicide Review (DHR) into death of 24-year old Alice Ruggles had been published. Alice had been stalked and subsequently murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Trimaan Dhillon in Gateshead in October 2016. One of the purposes of a DHR is to establish whether lessons can be learnt from the death, in order to prevent similar murders in the future. Within the review, the independent panel made twenty recommendations, some aimed at government level, others for reginal and local organisations. Recommendation 8 was aimed at national level – “Home Office to consider the legal and social impact of the non-regulation of spyware in respect of domestic abuse and stalking victims”. The purpose of this recommendation was to ensure: “Spyware is better regulated, public awareness of the use of spyware to commit abuse and stalking is increased and victims are better protected”.

There was no suggestion that Dhillon had used GPS tracking devices, instead the reference to spyware relates to the methods he used to cyber-stalk Alice through her social media. The review found that Dhillon used social media and messaging to isolate, frighten and exert control over Alice. He was able to digitally stalk Alice by accessing her phone, messages and online accounts. Although it was never proved, it is believed he also used spyware surveillance software. Dhillon didn’t only use technology to covertly stalk Alice, he also used it to fake accounts in order to harass her.

Whilst Dhillon’s methods were to use digital spyware and cyber-stalking, the use of ‘non-online’ surveillance spy devices have also been used in tragic circumstances. A few months before Alice was killed, 19-year old Shana Grice was murdered in Portslade, East Sussex, by her stalker and ex-boyfriend Michael Lane. In this case Lane fitted a tracker to Shana’s car as part of his offending behaviour, a tracker like those advertised on Amazon, eBay and other online marketplaces.

What we have here are two forms of covert surveillance, one using online technology to watch, control and harass; the other utilising technology to watch, listen and track. Two forms of stalking.

The key findings and actions that came from the DHR into Alice’s murder were well considered and included an action for the Chair of Gateshead Community Safety Board to “write to the Home Office to request that they consider the legal and social impact of the non-regulation of spyware in respect of domestic abuse and stalking victim”. Another was for the Member of Parliament and Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria to raise awareness of Alice Ruggles DHR, and to lobby for improved regulation of spyware products. Sadly, the reality is that any form of legislation forcing the likes of Amazon to get their act together, is a long-way off and potentially may never happen. A complete ban is unlikely and if it did, then how do you prevent a stalker from purchasing from abroad. That’s not to say that making representations at parliamentary level should not be encouraged, but the purpose of this article is to focus on another of the DHR’s key findings. This is that the digital stalking was not fully understood by the agencies involved with Alice and that there was a: “a lack of support and advice provided by agencies to limit the perpetrator’s access to Alice’s social media and messaging accounts”. The review panel concluded that agencies need to be alert to the potential use of spyware by perpetrators and provide appropriate advice to the victims. Whilst this was recorded in the context of online stalking, it is also relevant for all forms of covert surveillance used by stalkers. The panel outlined the challenges they felt faced those agencies responsible for safeguarding victims, which we feel are very relevant:

  1. How to identify it has happened?
  2. What to do about it?
  3. How to help prevent it happening?

Therefore this article is aimed at assisting safeguarding professionals with some information that will try to address each of those points:

How to identify it has/is happening

It is crucial to have a good understanding of what devices and types of surveillance devices that the stalker has at their disposal. Covert surveillance equipment used in stalking, broadly fall into the following categories:

  • visual
  • auditory
  • tracking
  • communication interception

Commercially available spying equipment can be purchased at specialist high street stores, but the real marketplace is online. Both eBay and Amazon have an abundance of equipment available and there is no subtlety involved in the advertisements. For example, the Mail on Sunday news piece which kicked our article off, highlighted a portable real time GPS tracker that can be magnetically attached to “vehicles or belt and track their movement in real time over the internet”. A further description for this device featured on the Amazon pages is “perfect for tracking vehicles, teens, spouses, elderly persons or assets”. Other references include tracking a suspicious spouse” and “track your spouse or partner to see where they actually are when ‘working late’ again”. The device also has a geofence function which means the person with control over the device can set geographic boundaries around locations, receiving a notification when the person or vehicle carrying the device leaves the area. When describing this function, the advert gives some examples, one of them being “alerting you the moment your suspect spouse leaves your home”. No real mistake that this is aimed at stalking your partner. These types of trackers retail from £40 upwards, but there are trackers on the market for as little as £10, with some linked to contract services.

This is just one device that a stalker can utilise. Below is some of the other technology available:

Potential signs of covert surveillance  (not exhaustive)

  •  does the perpetrator know personal information about the victim that they would not ordinarily have access to?
  • does the perpetrator repeat back to the victim (or knows details of) private conversations the victim has had with other?
  • does the perpetrator know the current whereabouts of the victim, or turns up at a location the victim is at, without having any prior information of where the victim was going?
  • does the perpetrator continue to find ways of contacting the victim, after they have changed telephone numbers and social media profiles?
  • does the perpetrator have access to the victim’s social media account despite being blocked?
  • the victim has been given smart devices, phones, computers by the perpetrator.
  • does the victim report unusual activity on their social media accounts e.g. messages and posts are appearing/disappearing on their accounts?
  • does the victim report unusual activity on their bank or other financial accounts?
  • does the victim report apps on their devices that they do not recognise and did not download?
  • has the victim received unexpected notifications or email requests asking them to confirm password changes?
  • has a potential perpetrator borrowed the victim’s laptop/phone/device for any period of time e.g. to sort out an issue the victim might have with the device?

How to help prevent it happening and what to do about it

 Improve your own knowledge

For practitioners to respond properly to incidents of cover stalking, it is important they have a good working knowledge of stalking, that they are able to recognise the signs and understand the different motivation types.

Dealing with a person who believes they are being stalked

 The persistent and obsessive nature of a stalker should never be underestimated. Whilst many may use an unsubtle direct approach, many others will be sly, manipulative and underhand in their method. Some stalkers will take their time, spending hours upon hours planning their stalking campaign, covertly gaining information about their victims from other people or from online sources. Stalkers are capable of stalking their victims over a long period of time, often many years, with many victims not initially reporting until the behaviour becomes more and more persistent. Statistics show that the average stalking victim experiences more than 100 incidents before reporting to police.

Be aware of how being stalked can affect and change a person’s life. Stalking can cause:

  • psychological harm including post-traumatic stress disorder
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • agoraphobia
  • suicidal thoughts

It can force victims to:

  • change their routine and behaviour
  • change their job
  • withdraw from social interactions
  • move home

It can lead to:

  • physical assault
  • psychological assault
  • sexual assault
  • homicide

Regardless of your role, you will probably need to obtain some detail from the victim to make a decision about risk and determine what action you should take. Attempt to establish:

  • timeline of events
  • the number of incidents, details and locations
  • the relationship (if any) between the victim and stalker, including how the victim knows the stalker
  • whether others are affected (secondary victims) and at risk, such as the victim’s partner, parents, friends or children

Please note: The person will likely be giving you details of crime(s) and therefore may well be entitled to special measures within the criminal justice system, if criminal charges are brought against the stalker. Therefore, care should be taken to only record sufficient information to enable you make a decision around risk and shape your next course of action, whilst leaving police to determine the most appropriate means of obtaining an evidential statement from the victim.

  • Never take the risk likely. Just because there has been no violence doesn’t mean that the risk can be treated less seriously
  • Always listen to the victim and treating what they say and feel seriously
  • Never send any potential victim away or making a ‘future’ appointment for them. If the victim doesn’t get the appropriate response and support at the time, then you may not have a further opportunity and the consequences could be fatal
  • Always be supportive and non-judgemental
  • Familiarise yourself with the various risk assessment tools available that can help you assess risk e.g. the S – DASH stalking screening questions or the Stalking Risk Profile.

Please Note: A word of warning about risk assessing stalking. Whilst screening questions will assist you in recognising the risk, risk assessment and the response in stalking cases should be carried out by police or others trained to deal with stalking cases.

The Golden Rule

If the victim is describing or making an allegation of stalking, then it MUST be reported to the Police. If the victim appears to be in immediate danger then contact with the police should be via the 999-emergency call system.

Covert Surveillance – some key advice for victims

Summary

Whilst the advice above can be provided to the victim, it is vitally important that the stalking is reported to the police, so that the criminal elements can be investigated and the risk managed. It will also allow the victim to get the required support e.g. specialist advocates. Professionals trained in stalking will be able to provide advice to the victim around:

  • bespoke safety plans
  • maintaining a log of the stalking
  • how to retain evidence e.g. text and phone messages, letters and gifts

Covert Surveillance – more advice and resources that can help you and the victim

Below are some further resources we recommend you familiarise yourself with:

Digital stalking: A guide to technology risks for victims by Jennifer Perry – whilst written in 2012, this is a concise guide, covering pretty much everything we have included in this article.

Technology and Safety Quick Tipsa document by Refuge and Safety Net, providing guidance on risks and safety tips covering: Spyware, Computer & Phone Monitoring Software, Keystroke Logging Hardware, Global Positioning System (GPS) Devices, Mobile Phones, Caller ID & Spoofing, Email, Hidden Cameras, Personal Information & the Internet. Please note: this guide is from the US and therefore contains invalid contact numbers.

Documentation Tips for Survivors of Technology Abuse & Stalkinga resource by Refuge and Safety Net, providing advice on how to document abuse and stalking. Please note: this guide is from the US and therefore contains invalid contact numbers.

iPhonePrivacy&SecurityGuidea guide by Refuge and Safety Net on how to keep your iPhone safe. Please note: this guide is from the US and therefore contains invalid contact numbers.

Android – a website article titled: How to harden your smartphone against stalkers—Android edition’.

Who’s Spying on Your Computer – Spyware, Surveillance, and Safety for Survivorsa guide by Refuge and Safety Net covering spyware. Please note: this guide is from the US and therefore contains invalid contact numbers.

Choosing and Using Apps Considerations for Survivors by Refuge and NNEDV, a guide explaining the importance of considering safety and privacy when accessing domestic violence and stalking support apps.  Please note: this guide is from the US and therefore contains invalid contact numbers.

Home Automation Survivor Privacy Risks and Strategiesan insight into smart devices and how they can be misused. Please note: this guide is from the US and therefore contains invalid contact numbers.

Thanks for reading

Share This Story

2 Comments

  1. Martin 05/08/2019 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    Brilliant as ever and topical after a recent seminar in force I have had several requests for search teams
    Physical search by trained officers is the most effective means of recovering and if appropriate forensically linking offenders

  2. Clare 12/06/2020 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    This page is BRILLIANT. I wish I had come across this at the start of my stalking troubles as it gathers together so much of the information that I have gleaned from many other different sources over a lengthy period of time. My practical observation is that tending to much of this information, though, is almost a full-time job, especially if you have digital troubles & aren’t very savvy. The lack of cyber / digital law is so woefully inadequate, let alone how such could effectively be policed if it did exist is a huge debate. Yet it leaves cyber stalked people beaten down & hopelessly vulnerable to especially if many other tactics are being employed also.
    If apps exist to follow a tracked vehicle or person, there is nothing stopping several people from monitoring a person via the app at the same time. Private & Secret Facebook groups can be used as a means to target a person; their private information
    & life events can be publicised; the victim can be acutely aware of such information flowing between people yet have no control over it & no means of acquiring the ‘proof’ of how it happened.
    The above article assumes that the stalker’s identity is known. How is the victim supposed to find out who is covertly stalking them? An article about this would be really good. The biggest problem for a victim being covertly or cyber stalked is providing evidence to the police. Without evidence &/or a name they don’t investigate. That is precisely what they would need the police to help with.
    Chicken & Egg.

Leave A Comment

Coming Soon

FREE Safeguarding Platform for Professionals

Don’t want to wait until the official launch?

GET EARLY ACCESS NOW

From Our Blog

Even residential care for children have “rogue traders”

A look at the recommendation from the Independent Inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) interim report, which states that those working in children’s homes in England, should be required to register, in the same way that social workers have to.

The Safeguarding Hub Platform for Professionals

Find Out More

A FREE Dedicated Safeguarding Platform for Learning, Sharing & Collaborating