From Digital to Physical: Cyberstalking and What You Can Do About It

In the digital age, cyberstalking is now a threat to many people who keep sacred information online, especially women with abusive partners.

Edited and packaged by Nikki Donohue

Kaitlyn, a SUNY Geneseo student who would wish to keep her last name anonymous, found her life snowballing out of control when she got an email from campus mail services asking that she retrieve a package. When she got there, she found a shipment of drugs and an undercover lieutenant waiting for her. An anonymous tip had been sent in that she would be receiving drugs with intent to sell. 

Soon after, it was brought to her attention that her name appeared on multiple prostitution websites. The photos published with her name were not her but shared a resemblance. Her friends also started getting threats from fake, anonymous phone numbers. 

To the outside world, the drug shipments and prostitution profiles looked like Kaitlyn’s doing. Her entire life was turned upside down from what seemed like her own actions. Her sorority sisters were so scared, they decided to cancel future parties and the mentally exhausted Kaitlyn reluctantly took a leave of absence from school.

Victim of cyberstalking looking at her phone. Photo courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Kaitlyn began her college career feeling immense pressure from her possessive hometown boyfriend. Their relationship started out seemingly normal. He showered her with gifts, compliments and as much love as an 18-year-old girl could wish for. Her suspicions grew throughout the relationship as he consistently knew information she only shared with her friends. 

In the early days of their relationship, the first red flag came when he reacted angrily towards her for asking her friends for relationship advice over GroupMe. He knew she asked, and he knew their answers. He was angry over her decision to talk to them about their relationship without his consent. 

She first felt uneasy. “This was the first sign though so I thought nothing of it yet,” she said.

Still, she wondered how he knew, but soon decided that he just knew her well enough to understand her habit of looking to her friends for advice.

Instagram became a source of anxiety once she realized she was no longer following some of the boys she was friends with. Could he be doing this too? Kaitlyn would open Snapchat to find her account was logged out, an indication that someone else logged in.  Her first thought, however, went to glitched technology. Still, she found herself pondering how he knew information she only told her friends via iMessage or other forms of online communication. 

On top of all the social media confusion, she grew to hate his possessive tendencies. 

Everything Kaitlyn did was grounds for his disapproval. He criticized her for going out too much and told her that her cropped tops were too short. At the time, Kaitlyn told herself, “he’s older and smarter and just wants a classier girlfriend.” 

“He’s older and smarter and just wants a classier girlfriend.” 


—Kaitlyn

She knew he’d found a way to read her iMessages and Snapchats from his own phone, but he continued to deny it. When Kaitlyn brought up the Snapchat mishaps his answer was always the same. “There’s no one on your Snapchat,” he said. “Mine does that too.” She described her thought process this way — “If he’s doing this because he doesn’t trust me, that’s fine. I have nothing to hide anyway.” 

So, Kaitlyn begrudgingly accepted the fact that her boyfriend was spying on all of her conversations, never letting him know she was fully aware of his secret. She continued on with the need to end the relationship weighing on her consciousness.

She continued to confide in her friends online about her doubts about the relationship’s future, always making an excuse to postpone the breakup. Because he was still reading her messages, he eventually confronted her. “I have a feeling that you’ve been wanting to break up with me,” he said. He still didn’t admit to hacking into her messages. They broke up on what she thought were fine terms.

One week post-breakup, she opened Snapchat to see she was logged out again. This time the location on Snapmap had her placed on Long Island instead of Geneseo, where she was still attending school. The ability for her to physically see her location place her somewhere that she was not was monumental. Not only was this the first solid piece of evidence tying her ex-boyfriend to the “glitches,” she knew his cyberstalking had not ceased since the relationship ended.

Paul Chauvet, certified information systems security professional and information security officer at SUNY New Paltz, says cyberstalking is “a way of tracking someone’s information, movements and communications without that person’s consent or knowledge.” 

Through a forensic eye, cyberstalking involves a series of escalating incidents that are used to exert control over victims. When perpetrators use technology to stalk their victims, they don’t need to be in physical proximity to them, but the threat of an assault doesn’t disappear. According to the National Institute of Justice, stalking, intimacy and domestic violence consistently intersect. 

In light of the intersection of cyberstalking and intimate partner violence, law enforcement officials urge victims to keep a detailed journal of all incidents. Peter Talarico, the lieutenant in charge of detectives in Newburgh, New York, compares incidents of cyberstalking to bricks in a wall. “When you finally do decide to have someone arrested, you have the documentation to prove it,” he said.

According to fraudsupport.org, victims of cyberstalking should “keep a record of the dates, times and people involved and descriptions detailing when the stalking occurred.” This kind of evidence will be important to law enforcement when addressing the plausible actions they can take. 

Intimate partner cyberstalking can involve location, password sharing or hacking. Through detailed knowledge of the victim’s routines, the potential for physical danger hides in the underbelly of the confusing reality.

Both state and federal agencies have laws against cyberstalking. In New York State, Penal Law §§ 120.45, 120.50, 120.55, 120.60 includes statutes that create the crime of stalking. If the suspect has committed the act of stalking against several individuals, the law heightens the level of offense, resulting in up to seven years in prison. The offenses cover the primary victim, members of their family and their acquaintances. 

Federal law 18 U.S. Code § 2261A.Stalking of Domestic Violence and Stalking Laws in the U.S states that perpetrators who use “the mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication system,” in order to cause or attempt to cause substantial emotional distress to a person, their spouse or intimate partner of that person can be sentenced for up to 20 years in prison, depending on the damages. People who commit the crime of stalking while under a restraining order, no-contact order, or permanent civil or criminal injunction can be punished by imprisonment of at least one year. 

At the end of Kaitlyn’s story, her stalker was arrested in what U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. called efforts that “very well may have prevented an unspeakable act of violence from occurring, resulting in tragedy and heartbreak.” 

Police took decisive action after he barraged her friends with threatening text messages, including “It’s not safe out there tonight” and “The only thing that helps is revenge.” They found an AR-15 rifle in his house at the time of his arrest. 

According to data collected by the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, women are more likely to experience cyberstalking compared to men. 

Ten percent of women experience online stalking in comparison to five percent of men, a statistic that jumps to 20% for women under 30. Women also have a higher risk of long-term online and sexual harassment. All internet users are at equal risk of being hacked, monitored or tracked via location services. These risks are substantially higher for those ages 15-29 in comparison to older adult users. 

Like Kaitlyn, 17% of users experience unsolicited monitoring of their phone activity and 12% are targets of email and text messaging spying. 

Chauvet acknowledged the importance of doing what he calls a hygiene check. Whether an individual is still in, or just getting out of a possessive relationship, he emphasizes the importance of asking yourself questions related to your tech, especially considering location and privacy sharing. Part of the issue with social media is the nuanced ways location sharing or tracking can be used as stalkerware. 

“Just like the appropriate tool to get a nail into the wall would be a hammer, but if I have any other hard object I can make it happen,” Chauvet said. 

As an IT expert, he says digital health needs to be addressed early on. “This is something I think the schools need to be much more involved in teaching at a younger age,” he said. “Even at the middle school level.” 

SUNY New Paltz student Isabella, who would also like her last name anonymous, dealt with cyberstalking just before entering her freshman year. Her long-term possessive boyfriend broke up with her when he was told that she admitted a runner on the track team was “hot.” He became aggressive, then ended the relationship.

Isabella recalled “a lot of phone calls full of screaming, and it got to the point where he was being verbally abusive over text.” Although she blocked his phone number and social media accounts, he used an app to make nearly 50 fake phone numbers to call and text her. 

He also made new Instagram and Twitter accounts to contact her.

When online stalking didn’t give him the response he hoped for, he escalated to in-person intimidation. Suddenly the street she lived on became part of his running path and Isabella’s job became a hot spot for him to check in on her. His drop-ins became common enough that the pizza shop workers next door knew his face and stayed with her when he came around. After a few weeks of becoming frustrated with her constant protection, he verbally abused her over text again.

Finally, she went to the police, but little could be done for her. She said that law enforcement involved believed he didn’t pose a violent threat and felt reluctant to take action against someone under 18. 

The National Violence Against Women Survey found that 81% of women stalked by a present or former intimate partner had been physically assaulted by that person.

Research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence revealed the tendency for college males to cyberstalk college females with certain psychological traits as predictors. Research on stalking finds men to generally be perpetrators — especially those who experienced childhood trauma or harsh parenting, leading to insecure and preoccupied attachment styles. The study found that “stalkers may have attachment problems and feel narcissistically wounded following a relationship dissolution they did not initiate.” 

Kathryn K. preferred her identity be kept a secret as well. Her experience with stalking, both online and in person, began in 2016. Although her stalker keeps a close watch on her online presence to this day, it is not enough for authorities to step in. 

“My lawyer sums it up by saying it’s about my physical safety,” she said. “Because of existing laws, he’s allowed to continue creeping on me online with no punishment.” 

Kathryn was 22 when they met on an online dating app. She recalled ignoring a lot of red flags — he requested that she share her location, email and phone password. Eventually, the emotionally abusive relationship turned physically abusive — this is what sparked the end.

After the breakup, she shut her phone off completely for three days to avoid his consistent calling. She turned her location services off and changed every password she could think of — although a flaw in Twitter still allowed him to access her account for months. 

Former intimate stalkers are fixated stalkers — those with only one victim and have significantly higher scores on preoccupied attachment. 

Psychologist Kim Bartholomew’s two dimensional model of attachment describes those exhibiting preoccupied attachment styles as being overly invested in self-worth, dependent on others for that self-worth, and demanding. The perceived safety found through the attachment is more important than the quality of the attachment itself. Individuals with this type of attachment fear abandonment and may use dramatic displays and enhanced proximity to maintain a relationship.

Ally Arts is a cyber engineer who runs a blog and podcast that gives adults advice on cybersecurity. When discussing social media, she said users should go into their privacy settings and revoke access to unknown or foreign devices. She also instructs victims to change their passwords. “I fully recommend long, complex passwords,” she said, “make it a joke, or something completely random that you know you will remember.”

In Kathryn’s case, she wasn’t sure what exactly he could access. He knew some things and not others, sometimes a random person would hop into her Zoom meetings then later on he’d send a LinkedIn request to those in the meeting. He would even send deranged emails to her boss and colleagues. He would even show up to events she was at.

Eventually, she accidentally realized he had access to her calendar. “I was checking another setting and all of a sudden I saw his email address under who I share my calendar with,” she said. “I was so shocked I didn’t even remember to take a screenshot (for evidence) before removing him as fast as possible.” 

This gave him complete access to her schedule so he knew who she would be with, when she’d be with them and where. Whether her meetings were virtual or in person, he knew. 

After months of feeling in danger every second of each day, he was served an order of protection. Kathryn still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks of particularly violent incidents. Her work was impacted by the stress and him reaching out to her company. 

For months Kathryn didn’t know if her phone had stalkerware on it, but she couldn’t afford to pay $3000 to have her phone scanned for it. 

Ally Arts says individuals should regularly check the apps installed on their phone and what permissions are shared with them. She says this will help users to become familiar with what’s on their phone, so if something new pops up they can investigate. “I do this fairly regularly,” she said. “I don’t need Facebook to be able to track my location for example, so I have location services turned off at all times.” 

Kaitlyn, Isabella and Kathryn’s stories all share the shift from digital to physical stalking. Kaitlyn’s ex-boyfriend shot a BB gun through her car window, Isabella’s ex-boyfriend consistently showed up to her job and Kathryn’s ex-partner appeared at multiple events she attended. 

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 34.3% of stalking victims reported their perpetrator following or spying on them, while 31.1% reported their perpetrator showing up where they were, just as Kathryn’s ex did. Stalking done through the digital realm does not remain specific to cyberspace, but can be remedied.

Kaitlyn acknowledged the importance of telling those in your life what you’re going through. “When it came to the police questioning me, my friends, and my mom, everyone knew what was going on,” she said, “so everyone had the same story and it made it a lot easier.” Her advice is simple — stop making excuses for toxic people and trust your intuition. “If you feel like something is wrong, don’t let your stalker make you feel crazy.”

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