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Shut down and shut in: the rise of cyberstalking in lockdown

When lockdown first began, there was an understandable concern for the women and children trapped in households with abusive partners. Refuge reported a 950% increase in visits to its website since the measures began and a 66% rise in calls to the UK’s national domestic abuse helpline.

There was less of a worry about the victims of stalking. After all, if nothing else, we’d all be locked in our homes: surely that would make it safer for the victims? And yet, as we’ve seen in the months since, that’s very far from what’s really happened. In fact, as Laura Richards, founder of Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service, said, the home can be the most dangerous place for a woman.

In the first month of lockdown alone, charities, support services and police forces all reported a surge in one particular area: cyberstalking. Paladin and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs a stalking helpline, reported a 40% increase in pleas of help from victims.

It makes sense. Stalkers are subject to the same measures as their victims: lockdown meant they may have been furloughed from work, they were mainly confined to their homes and they had more time on their hands, which meant they were free to spend more of their time focused on their victims, free of the usual distractions of life. With the targets of their obsession also unable to leave their homes, it became easier to know where they were likely to be at all times. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust reported that victims felt like ‘sitting ducks’

The government response to the virus has also meant that victims have been more isolated than ever, their access to their support networks cut off. The measures we are all taking to stay in contact with our friends and loved ones only work to the abusers’ favour. Our lives are increasingly playing out online as we spend more time on social media and apps like House party to stay in touch with our friends and family and stalkers are able to use that same technology to harass, monitor and abuse their targets. Phone calls, text messages and emails, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook have all been used. Sometimes, victims are forced to close their accounts, further isolating them.

Writing in the Telegrapha woman who had been stalked by her own husband reported these same concerns. A victim of cyberstalking, who had had the technology in her home used against her, she wrote of how difficult it has been to trust it as a means of contact with the outside world. The divorce proceedings she had initiated against her husband were also put on hold when lockdown was announced. The lockdown only made her feel less secure.

In another article for the Telegraph, Laura Richards also reported seeing an increase in the use of spyware, social media monitoring and even computer cameras being taken over remotely. Then there are the numerous women who have spoken to her about being threatened with revenge porn. The increased use in technology and the internet is only helping stalkers to control their victims. 

Gabbie Hanna, who rose to fame after success on Vine and YouTube, tweeted during lockdown of the effects her own stalker has had on her. She reported trying to block them, but as with many who utilise online platforms to abuse their victims, they were simply able to set up fresh accounts and continue the harassment. 

But while there might be an increase in online stalking, some abusers have even used the threat of the virus and lockdown to their benefit. Victims have spoken of their stalkers appearing at the homes of their elderly parents, when they dropped off supplies and even using the virus itself as a threat against them. One stalker, whose victim ran a café, reportedly told people that her victim didn’t wash her hands, while another threatened to pass on the virus to their victim.

Stalking features in 96% of domestic homicides.

Meanwhile, two NHS staff members in Sussex, who have been working throughout the crisis, have also reported feeling more vulnerable to their stalkers than to the illness itself. The emptier streets only added to the threat and their own feelings of vulnerability.

Compounding the issue is that stalking is often still not taken seriously enough by police. In 2016, Shana Grice complained to the police that her ex-boyfriend, Michael Lane, was stalking her. Police not only failed to take her claims seriously, but they also fined her for wasting police time. In August of that year, Lane broke into Grice’s home while she was alone and murdered her. And Grice’s case is not unique: stalking features in 96% of domestic homicides. That number only increased over lockdown.

Adding to this is the fact that with emergency services under increased pressure, victims have also been more reluctant to report their claims, as Richards mentioned in her article.

Charities like Paladin and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust are continuing to work on behalf of victims. During the trust’s annual national stalking awareness campaign in April, it responded to the restrictions that meant they had to cancel a conference and move everything online by releasing a series of videos and podcasts on stalking and the psychological impact it has on victims. 

But with funding an issue, there is an increased need for the government to step in and address the issue by putting a policy in place that will protect victims.

In Scotland, such legislation already exists, where stalking exists as a standalone offence, thanks in part to the work of campaigner Ann Moulds. Moulds is now working with Nikita Rogers, a victim of stalking herself, to ensure that the UK government follows suit. A neighbour harassed Rogers for months, forcing her to call the police on him 30 times. He eventually broke into her home with a crowbar, breaking a restraining order. 

More needs to be done for the victims. The seriousness of stalking needs to be recognised to protect victims and prevent cases from becoming domestic homicides.