The old joke goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s out to get you,” but the fact is that stalking is a serious and sometimes life-threatening situation that happens to people every day. Perhaps an ex has hacked into your email, a creepy neighbor is watching your every move, or your landlord is illegally snooping. Maybe your family is keeping tabs on you, or someone you met online is a little too interested in your private life. Stalkers—even those who are family members—can range from harmless to deadly, but it can be difficult to tell where yours fits on that spectrum. Whoever it is, if you feel like someone may be spying on you, there are steps you should take to protect yourself.
The definition of stalking varies slightly state by state. However, the definition generally includes repeated, unwanted contact that causes alarm to the victim. Typically, the victim will need to prove that he or she asked the perpetrator to stop and that the stalker continued with the harassment.
This guide will help you determine how to handle spies and stalkers, as well as advise you what not to do:
Determine the Danger Level
According to experts, the first thing to do is decide whether you are really being spied on, and if so, whether it’s a situation that is merely annoying or truly dangerous. One way you can determine this is by comparing your experience with common signs of stalking behavior. These include:
1. Persistent phone calls after being asked to stop.
2. Waiting for you at your workplace or other places you go regularly.
3. Manipulation, such as threatening to hurt or kill oneself if you don’t respond.
4. Threats to your safety.
5. Written messages after being asking to stop.
6. Sending gifts, either romantic or bizarre.
7. Lying about you to others.
8. Objectification of you.
The number of these behaviors and intensity with which the person is exhibiting them will help you determine how serious the situation is.
The first thing you need to do if someone is harassing, stalking, or spying on you is to tell them unequivocally and in writing, to stop. Document everything—all contact between you and the person, including all instances in which you suspect or know they are violating your privacy or requests to cease. Include dates, times, locations, and the names of witnesses. Also, save everything the stalker sends you, including emails, letters, gifts, and packages.
Contact the police and file a report against the person who is harassing or spying on you. In addition, depending on the severity of the situation, you may want to inform your neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, and the security at home and work that you have a stalker so that they do not unwittingly give up information about you.
If you feel you are in danger, you should contact an attorney to help you get a restraining order. If you are awarded an order of protection, make several copies to keep at home, work, in your car, and to carry with you at all times.
Protecting Your Privacy
It’s not always physical stalking that’s threatening—online spying is becoming increasingly common as well. The primary ways to deal with people digging into your personal life online are the same steps you would take to prevent identity theft and hacking: shredding all documents with identifying information on them, using strong passwords online and changing them regularly, and locking up sensitive personal documents. In addition, experts on stalking recommend you screen all calls with an answering machine and use a post office box instead of your physical address for all mail.
What Not to Do
Along with the actions you can take to prevent or deal with harassment, there are a few things you should avoid doing:
1. Never respond to or in any way engage with the person who is stalking or spying on you, other than to tell them to cease and desist. Once you have delivered that message, it’s best to cut off all contact, even if it’s emotionally difficult. In fact, it’s preferable to deliver the cease and desist message through a third party, such as police or legal channels.
2. Don’t ignore the problem and assume it will go away. Report all instances of stalking or spying behaviors to the authorities.
3. Don’t blame yourself. It is never the victim’s fault.