How domestic abusers use technology to track partners, and how to protect yourself

Crime, News, Relationships

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The statistics are sobering – 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her life – and it’s believed that the real numbers are even higher than those reported.

A recent NPR article highlights the fact that technology allows abusers to track and spy on their victims cheaply and easily. Victims and survivors of domestic abuse who feel that something is wrong should consider the possibility that they are being tracked through their computers, phones and social media accounts, and take steps to stop it.

Tech safety tips for victims and survivors of domestic abuse

Computer safety

A type of software called spyware on your laptop or desktop computer can keep track of every website you visit, every email you send and receive, every document you open and print and more. It can even keep track of your keystrokes, allowing someone else to discover your passwords.

What if your abuser didn’t ever have physical access to your computer? It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. Spyware can be installed on your computer by hacking in through the Internet or through an attachment in an email you or your children open.

Because it can be tough to tell if your computer has spyware, which is designed to escape detection, you might have to go with your gut. If you feel that your abuser knows more than he or she should about your whereabouts or what’s going on in your life, it’s possible that he or she is spying on you via your computer.

What to do:

  • Use a safe computer (e.g., at the library) to change your passwords for accounts you want to keep secure and then do not access them from your home computer.
  • Use a safe computer to create new email accounts with usernames that do not identify you. You might want to create a separate address for your financial accounts, one for trusted friends only and one that you can give to people who know both you and your abuser in case they forward correspondence on.
  • Talk to your children about not opening attachments in case they contain spyware.
  • Get a new computer if possible. Once spyware is on your computer, it may be extremely difficult or impossible to remove entirely.
  • If you don’t think your computer has spyware on it yet, ensure you have a secure firewall and install anti-spyware software that is set to update automatically. Keep in mind, however, that if you already have spyware, these steps won’t stop it from continuing to gather data.
  • Read more about spyware.

Cell phone safety

Spyware exists for cell phones, too. Much of this software is marketed to parents as a way to protect and monitor their children, but some abusers use it to spy on current or former partners.

Cell phone spyware can track incoming and outgoing calls and texts, record phone conversations and more. Some software can also work like a bug. As soon as a call comes in, the phone’s mic begins recording whatever is going on around it, including conversations. This happens even if the call is rejected or ignored.

What’s more, many programs can use a phone’s GPS to track its location in real time.

What to do:

  • Turn your phone’s GPS function off. Some phones have the option to allow GPS only when dialing 911; if your phone has this capability, use this feature.
  • If you are receiving harassing phone calls, learn more about keeping logs and saving evidence to use in a legal case against your abuser.
  • If you plan to go to a shelter or safe house, it is imperative to leave your phone behind. Even phones that are turned off can provide information. Instead, get a prepaid cellphone that doesn’t require a contract or identifying information. They are cheap and easy to find.

Social media safety

In this era of oversharing, it’s very easy for an abuser to gain valuable information about his or her victim’s location and activities.

What to do:

  • Don’t post or share anything that you don’t want the world to know. Assume that anything you put on a social media account is open information and err on the side of caution.
  • Maintain strict control over your privacy settings on all accounts.
  • Facebook’s privacy settings change constantly, but they do allow you to customize them to an extent. Put people into different groups and give those groups different privileges. Change your settings so you must review tags before things are posted with you in them. Go through and untag previous posts.
  • Ask your friends not to post or share anything about you online without your permission. Stress that it could put your safety in jeopardy.
  • Consider unfriending people so they can’t see everything or deleting your social media accounts entirely.
  • Make these changes from a safe computer if you suspect yours has spyware.

GPS monitoring and tracking

GPS tracking devices take advantage of the incredible ability to track someone’s or something’s location in real time. Many states use GPS technology to track people convicted of domestic violence in order to keep their victims safe. Sadly, some abusers use that same technology to keep tabs on their victims.

Abusers may also spy on you with nanny cams or something similar, which they can monitor from a remote location.

What to do:

  • If you believe you are being tracked or stalked, first see if there’s a GPS tracking device on your car and remove it. A small device may also be implanted in your clothing, shoes or purse. If you decide to go to a safe house or shelter, do not wear any old clothing; buy something new in case your old clothes were compromised.
  • Look for nanny cams and other surveillance devices in your home and at work.

Get help

If you are the victim of domestic violence and want to talk to someone, you have options.