An obsessed ex-boyfriend keeps ‘coincidentally’ turning up at the places you like to go.
A former colleague starts impersonating you online or sending you unwanted gifts.
You notice your social media passwords keep changing, and you’re pretty sure your controlling boyfriend is reading your private messages.
Any of these situations could be signs of stalking — but many of us don’t know how to spot stalking when we see it, or what to do if we find ourselves a target.
Stalking can cause fear, stress, confusion, anger, a sense of helplessness and isolation, self-blame and self-doubt.
In the middle of that overwhelming mix of emotions, it can be difficult to know what steps to take to keep safe if you think you might have a stalker on your hands.
ABC Life spoke to a few experts about what stalking really looks like — and what to do if you think you might be a target.
All about ‘power and control’
Maybe you think of stalkers as strangers lurking in the shadows, peeping through the window like Joe Goldberg in the popular TV series You, or following and threatening loved ones like the real life subject of the Dirty John podcast and TV show, John Meehan.
In reality, stalking can take a wide range of forms, but generally involves a person repeatedly contacting, harassing or spying on you or showing you unwanted attention that causes fear or distress.
It can be in person and it can be online. It’s also possible for someone to stalk you without you knowing about it at all.
Following you; loitering outside your home, workplace or public venues; interfering with your property; and making threats to harm (or actually harming) you or your loved ones can all be forms of stalking.
“They don’t even need to sight you. If they’re constantly leaving you gifts, or ordering and cancelling goods, that can also count,” says Julie Kun, CEO of Women’s Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE).
With social media, spyware and other technologies on the rise, Ms Kun says “we’re now seeing a lot of cyber-stalking”.
Cyber-stalking (also known as technology-assisted stalking) can include trolling or observing your social media accounts; hacking into your computer; installing tracking apps or devices; accessing your phone to view personal information; unwanted calls, texts or messages; sharing or threatening to share photos, videos or personal information; or impersonating your online identity.
Whether online or in real life, stalking always has a similar purpose.
It’s also about sending the clear, chilling message: “I know where you are.”
If it’s happening to you
If you think you’re being stalked, knowing where to turn for help can feel confusing and overwhelming. Here’s where to start.
Take it seriously
Stalking is a crime in all Australian states and territories, and all the experts we spoke to said it’s always best not to assume the stalking will go away.
Ms Kun says it’s always worth taking stalking “very seriously”, particularly if the person has a history of violence.
“Unfortunately we know that with many family violence victims that are killed, especially after leaving the relationship, there was an element of stalking happening,” she says.
Stalking is often difficult to detect or keep records of — “so it is really important to try to collect evidence, even if that is diarising what you’ve seen,” says Ms Kun.
It’s a good idea to save letters or gifts from the stalker; keep screenshots of texts or online abuse; take photos of graffiti, flowers or destroyed property in the position you found it; and keep all evidence in a safe place (such as on a USB at a friend’s house), the eSafety Commissioner recommends.
And whenever an incident relating to the stalking takes place, be sure to write down what happened, where, the date and time, and the name of any witnesses.
All this evidence will be important for the police investigation and if your case goes to court.
Seek legal help
It’s best to report the stalking to police immediately — ideally no more than two weeks after the stalking begins. (If you are stalked for more than two weeks, chances are your stalker will persist for six to 12 months, according to WIRE.)
Tell the police what’s been happening, show them the evidence you’ve collected, and ask them what you can do to improve your safety. (Free, confidential home security checks can also be arranged through most police stations.)
Your state or territory’s Victims of Crime service is another good resource to reach out to.
“You can call them and they can talk to you about their options and where you can get legal help,” says Jacinta Wainwright, a crisis response manager at family violence support service Safe Steps.
And if your stalker is a partner or ex-partner, 1800RESPECT can help with a range of things including safety planning.
(When calling one of these resources, it’s best to use a public phone or a friend’s mobile to call in case your phone is being tracked or overheard.)
Find emotional support
It’s also a good idea to seek some emotional support for yourself.
“Stalking can really undermine that sense of safety. There’s an emotional reaction, people can feel very fearful, have a lot of anxiety, feel powerlessness and then they can feel guilt and shame for feeling powerlessness,” says Ms Kun.
“Talking to an organisation like WIRE or 1800RESPECT about emotionally supporting yourself can help.”
And remember you’re not to blame, regardless of your history with the stalker.
Avoid contact with the stalker
WIRE recommends giving your stalker a single clear message that you don’t want any of their attention or contact. It’s best not to negotiate or reason with them, and to refrain from responding to insults or emails — the stalker may see any form of contact as a reward.
But Ms Kun adds that there’s no blanket rule on whether to ever respond to your stalker.
“For some, they might say, ‘I just turned around and said get lost, I know you’re there’ and that was enough,” she says. “For others, that could really escalate the danger.”
Tell trusted people what’s going on
It’s a good idea to tell trusted friends, family members, workmates, security guards and — if appropriate — neighbours that you are being stalked; if they don’t know what’s going on, they might accidentally pass on information to your stalker.
You might also want to agree on a code word you can use on the phone to friends if you need help in an emergency.
Asking your friends not to “check you in” to locations on social media or share imagery showing where you are is also a good idea.
Consider an intervention order
As soon as you realise you’re being stalked, it’s a good idea to think about getting an intervention order (known as a protection order in some states), says Ms Wainwright. “The earlier you can get help, the better.”
While not all stalkers will be deterred by a protection order, it is a crime to breach one of these orders, which can lead to an arrest.
Not sure how to get started with getting one of these orders? A lawyer or legal service — such as a free family violence legal service — can talk you through how to apply for one (known as an intervention order in some states).
Magistrates’ courts also offer assistance with applying for an intervention order; just ask the court registrar how to get started, says Ms Wainwright.
And if your stalker is a partner or ex-partner, family courts often offer free family violence support workers who can also help you apply for an intervention order.
This article contains general information only. You should obtain specific, professional legal or police advice in relation to your particular circumstances and issues.