Story by Dana, a Hotline Advocate
Stalking can be one of the most difficult abuse tactics to safety plan around, especially when police involvement and protective orders are either not possible or not helpful in stopping the abuse. Stalking prevents the victim from being able to cut off contact with the abusive partner, which makes it much more difficult for healing to begin. Oftentimes, stalking causes the victim to experience so much fear and anxiety that they return to the relationship because that seems like the only solution to get the abusive partner to stop.
According to statistics published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 76% of women murdered by an intimate partner were stalked first, while 85% of women who survived murder attempts were stalked. Additionally, 89% of femicide victims who had been physically assaulted before their murder were stalked in the last year prior to their murder.
Considering how dangerous stalking is, it is important to be informed and to know what your safety planning options are. To start, what is stalking, and how can you know if you are being stalked? Stalking is generally understood to be a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person, with the intention to intimidate and frighten the victim. According to a US Justice Department study on Stalking and Domestic Violence, “Stalking generally refers to harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly, such as following a person, appearing at a person’s home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person’s property. These actions may or may not be accompanied by a credible threat of serious harm, and they may or may not be precursors to an assault or murder.” While stalking behaviors can present during any part of an abusive relationship, the study found stalking to be most common after a victim has left the relationship, and women are significantly more likely to be stalked by a spouse or ex-spouse rather than a stranger, acquaintance, relative, or friend. Considering this, if you are planning to leave an abusive relationship, it is essential to factor in the possibility of stalking when creating your safety plan.
The legal definition of stalking does vary from state to state, so if you think you are being stalked, it may be helpful to reach out to local law enforcement or a legal advocate to learn more about the specific laws in your area. The National Stalking Awareness Month website also has information about stalking laws in every state as a part of their resource database.
Also, if you believe you are experiencing stalking, document as much about the behaviors in question as possible to create evidence of a pattern of a behavior, which can be helpful when making a report to law enforcement. We do know that stalking can include a variety of tactics and behaviors, some of which are more obviously threatening, and some of which, taken in isolation, can seem innocent or not worth mentioning. Document anything that makes you feel afraid or uncomfortable, no matter how small it seems.
Stalking can be physical and/or digital, and could include tactics such as:
- making repeated and unwanted phone calls or texts
- sending unwanted letters or emails
- following or spying on you
- showing up wherever you are without a legitimate reason to be there
- driving by or waiting around at places (home, work, school, etc) you frequent
- leaving/sending unwanted items, presents, or flowers for you to find
- posting information or spreading rumors about you on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth
- looking through your property (including trash cans, your mail, or your car)
- taking your property
- collecting information about you
- taking pictures of you
- damaging your home, car, or other property
- monitoring your phone calls, email, social media, or other computer use
- using technology, like hidden cameras or GPS, to track you
- threatening to hurt you, your family, friends, or pets
- finding out information by using public records or online search services, hiring investigators
- contacting friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers about you
This list is not inclusive of every behavior that a stalker might use, as stalking tactics will be targeted towards what will impact the intended victim the most. Threats of violence may be implicit or explicit. Remember, even if the stalker’s behaviors are not considered illegal in your state, their behavior is still abusive and there is nothing that you could ever say or do to deserve to be treated in that way. Stalking is never your fault; it is a tactic the abuser is using to intimidate and frighten you so they can (re)gain power and control over you.
If you are being stalked, what can you do? Common safety planning tips for physical stalking include:
- varying your routine (including using a different bank and grocery store, taking a different route to work and/or school, changing the places you normally frequent)
- not traveling alone; use the buddy system as much as possible
- staying in public areas as much as possible
- notifying friends/family members/neighbors/landlord/school/day care/coworkers/supervisor about the stalking
- developing a code word to use when the stalker is present or when you’re worried you may be in danger (when you text a friend or family member the code word, they know you need help and they follow a previously outlined plan to get you the help you need- this may involve calling the police)
- increasing home security (installing deadbolts, window locks or grates, visible security cameras, motion-activated outdoor lights, and/or a home security system)
- making a police report and getting a protective order against the stalker (this might not prevent the stalking, but it will allow you to report any violations of the order to the local police, increasing the likelihood that the stalker will eventually face legal consequences)
Safety planning tips for on-line stalking include:
- blocking their phone number and blocking them on social media (and asking your friends to block them/report their account as spam)
- contacting your e-mail provider to see if they can block an e-mail address
- changing your phone number and e-mail address or creating new ones for daily use
- increasing internet security on all devices
- checking devices for spyware
- finding out if your state has any laws specific to cyberstalking and online harassment
It is important to save any text messages, emails, voicemails, or letters for documentation purposes, and to keep in mind the possibility that blocking or attempting to block the stalker’s access to you could cause them to retaliate further. The stalker might keep changing their phone number or email address, or even create spam accounts to try to friend you on social media. If some of the above safety planning tips feel too extreme, you might decide to keep your old phone number active but let their calls go straight to voicemail and not answer calls from unknown numbers, or you could keep your old email address but not respond to any of the emails they send.
Whatever you choose to include or not include in your safety plan, it is important to remember that you do not owe this abusive person a response. After you’ve initially asked them to stop contacting you, it is typically safer to not respond to them. It is unlikely that you will be able to convince them to stop stalking you by telling them to stop repeatedly, as stalking is about gaining power and control over you. If the stalker promises to stop contacting you if you meet with them to talk in person, that is likely an attempt to put you in a vulnerable position so they can use other abusive tactics against you. Threats against your family and friends are similarly meant as emotional blackmail to convince you to give the abuser more access to you. Acknowledging their behaviors with a reply to their harassment is likely to be taken by them as a sign these tactics are working, which could cause the abusive behavior to increase. It also increases the likelihood that you could be accused of collaborating with the abuser, weakening any legal case you have against them moving forward.
Remember, this situation is not your fault! Abusive individuals are known to be charismatic and manipulative. Once you’ve communicated your boundaries and asked them to cease contact, you do not owe them further communication, and its generally best to end contact altogether and take steps to keep yourself safe from them.
What if you’ve tried all these tips and nothing is working? Other creative safety planning tips include:
- keeping the curtains/shades in your home closed all the time, or making a habit of turning on random lights in different parts of the home at different times of day (or installing a timer on existing lamps), so that lights being on are not an indication of when you are home
- putting a sign with the name of a security system visible in your yard or a window
- notifying neighborhood watch or your homeowner’s association about the situation (if you don’t feel comfortable being public about the stalking, mention that you have seen a “suspicious person” frequenting the area and give a physical description of the stalker)
- sharing the make/model/license plate number of any vehicles you know the stalker uses with anyone you have notified about the stalking, both so they will also be able to document and so they can reach out to warn you if they see the stalker
- asking your landlord or neighbor to stop by the property at random times to “check” on it
- asking your bank and doctor’s office to password protect your information and account
- giving a trusted friend a key and ask them to stop by randomly to “water your plants” or “feed your pet” which increases the likelihood of catching the stalker in action
- getting a dog that barks to discourage the stalker from coming near your home
- putting bells or chimes on all your windows and doors
- asking co-workers to screen your calls and help you keep a lookout for the stalker
- adding encrypted passwords to your phone and email
- getting new devices (phone, computer, etc.) altogether, if you’re concerned spyware has been installed
- asking the police to send an officer to patrol the neighborhood at a time the stalker often comes by, if any pattern can be discovered (call 9-1-1 and give an anonymous tip of a suspicious person in your area if you don’t want to or cannot divulge the abuse formally to the authorities)
If you think you are a victim of stalking and need safety planning assistance, do not hesitate to call 1-800-799-7233 or online chat with an advocate about further options and support. You deserve to live a life free from abuse and fear. We are here to support you 24/7!