What Is Stalking?
Stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. All 50 states have stalking laws, but statutes and definitions of stalking and related crimes vary from state to state. More information on the laws of states and other jurisdictions is available at the Stalking Resource Center website.
The crime of stalking may comprise behaviors that, in and of themselves, are not criminal, such as making phone calls, sending letters or gifts, and showing up at public places. Threats may be explicit or implicit or conveyed without words. Acts that appear meaningless or non-threatening to many people may be terrifying to victims. For instance, a rose left on the doorstep—a seemingly non-threatening gesture—may indicate to a victim that the offender has discovered where he/she lives. Context is critical to understanding stalking.
What Can Stalking Victims Do?
Many victims struggle with how to respond to the stalker. Some victims try to reason with the stalker, try to “let them down easy” or “be nice” in hopes of getting the stalker to stop the behavior. Some victims tell themselves that the behavior “isn’t that bad” or other sentiments that minimize the stalking behavior. Other victims may confront or threaten the stalker. These methods rarely work because stalkers are actually encouraged by any contact with the victim, even negative interactions.
Victims of stalking cannot predict what stalkers will do but can determine their own responses to the stalking behavior. Personal safety and harm prevention is of the utmost importance for victims. While victims cannot control the stalking behavior, they can be empowered to take steps to keep themselves, family and loved ones safe. The creation of a safety plan can assist victims in doing this.
Stalking Safety Plan – What Is It?
A safety plan is a combination of suggested steps, precautions, and responses intended to help victims reduce their risk of harm. It is a tool designed in response to the victim’s specific situation that evaluates what the victim is currently experiencing, incorporates the pattern of previous behavior, and examines options that will positively impact the victim’s safety.
Advocates and Stalking Safety Planning
While victims can make safety plans on their own, it is often helpful to enlist the assistance of trained professionals such as advocates and law enforcement officers. These professionals can help a victim devise a safety plan to address each unique situation and circumstance, and determine which options will most enhance their safety. Victim advocates can be found in local domestic violence and rape crisis programs, as well as in victim assistance programs in local prosecutors’ offices and in some law enforcement agencies. If you do not know how to find an advocate, contact the Victim Connect Resource Center for free and confidential services at 855-4-VICTIM (855-484-2846) or victimconnect.org/.
Stalking Safety Plans – What to Include
When safety planning, victims can consider what is known about the stalker, the people who might help, how to improve safety in one’s environment, and what to do in case of an emergency. The average stalking case lasts approximately two years, therefore safety planning must begin when the victim first identifies the stalking behavior and continue throughout the duration of the case. Safety plans need to be re-evaluated and updated continuously as the stalker’s behavior, the victim’s routines, and access to services and support changes.
Below are suggestions to consider when developing a stalking safety plan. This is not an exhaustive list. In a safety plan, any recommended strategy must focus on what the victim feels will work in his/her best interest at any given point in time.
1. Documentation of Stalking and Reporting to Police
Victims are encouraged to keep a log of all stalking behaviors, including e-mails, text, and phone messages. The log, as well as any gifts or letters the stalker sends the victim, can be collected and used as evidence. The evidence will help prove what has been going on if the victim decides to report the stalking to the police or apply for a protective order.
2. Rely on Trusted People
Many victims have found simple ways to make the stalking affect them less. They may ask someone else to pick up and sort their mail, get a second phone number given only to trusted people, or have people at work or school screen phone calls or inform the police if the stalker shows up. Relying on trusted friends and family is important to help keep victims safer and also reduce the isolation and feelings of desperation that they may experience.
3. Technology Safety Planning
It is important to consider how victims may be harmed by stalkers’ use of technology. Stalkers use technology in various ways to stalk their victims. Stalkers use the Internet to contact or post things about the victim on social media. They may also verbally attack or threaten victims in chat rooms. Some stalkers will post threatening or personal information about the victim – including the victim’s full name and address. Often stalkers will e-mail the victim or fill their in-box with spam, and have been known to send viruses or other harmful programs to victims’ computers. These threatening messages should be saved, especially if the victim is considering contacting the police with the case.
If stalkers have access to a victim’s computer, they can track them by looking at the history or websites visited on the computer. Also, stalkers have been known to install spyware software on computers (sometimes sent through e-mail) that sends them a copy of every keystroke made, including passwords, websites visited, and e-mails sent. Spyware is very difficult to detect and a victim will likely not know s/he has it on their computer. If a victim believes there is spyware on her/his computer, s/he should talk to a trained advocate.
Stalkers use cell phones enabled with Global Positioning System (GPS) to track victims. For example, a GPS-enabled phone placed in the victim’s car will let the stalker track everywhere the car travels. If the stalker has ever had access to the victim’s phone or computer, it may be necessary to stop using them altogether, or only use them in a manner that will not give the stalker any information about the victim’s location.
It is also important for victims of stalking to remain diligent about protecting their personal information that could be saved in databases. Businesses, for example, collect personal information about people, including addresses, phone numbers, last names, etc. This information can sometimes be accessed and exploited by stalkers. One stalking victim’s ex-partner learned of the victim’s new address by “innocently” inquiring at the local oil change station if the victim had recently brought in their car for an oil change. Victims are encouraged to consider who might have their personal information. They should instruct businesses to not give out any personal information. In many instances, victims can ask that their account be password protected and that no information is to be released or discussed until the password has been verified.
More information on technology safety can be found on the National Network to End Domestic Violence website.
Although no safety plan guarantees safety, such plans are valuable and important tools to keep victims safer, document incidents that happen with the perpetrator, make surroundings more secure, and identify people who can help. For more information about safety planning, please visit the Stalking Resource Center website at or call 855-4-VICTIM
Additional Stalking Safety Tips
- If possible, have a phone nearby at all times, preferably one to which the stalker has never had access. Memorize emergency numbers and make sure that 911 and helpful family or friends are on speed dial.
- Treat all threats, direct and indirect, as legitimate and inform law enforcement immediately.
- Vary routines, including changing routes to work, school, the grocery store, and other places regularly frequented. Limit time spent alone and try to shop at different stores and visit different bank branches.
- When out of the house or work environment, try not to travel alone and try to stay in public areas.
- Get a new, unlisted phone number. Leave the old number active and connected to an answering machine or voicemail. Have a friend, advocate, or law enforcement screen the calls, and save any messages from the stalker. These messages, particularly those that are explicitly abusive or threatening, can be critical evidence for law enforcement to build a stalking case against the offender.
- Do not interact with the person stalking or harassing you. Responding to stalker’s actions may reinforce their behavior.
- Consider obtaining a protective order against the stalker. Some states offer stalking protective orders and other victims may be eligible for protective orders under their state’s domestic violence statutes.
- Trust your instincts. If you’re somewhere that doesn’t feel safe, either find ways to make it safer, or leave.
- If in imminent danger, call 911.
Safety at home:
- Identify escape routes out of your house. Teach them to your children.
- Install solid core doors with dead bolts. If all keys cannot be accounted for, change the locks and secure the spare keys. Fix any broken windows or doors.
- Have a code word you use with your children that tells them when they need to leave.
- Inform neighbors and, if residing in an apartment, any on-site managers about the situation, providing them with a photo or description of the stalker and any vehicles they may drive if known. Ask your neighbors to call the police if they see the stalker at your house. Agree on a signal you will use when you need them to call the police.
- Pack a bag with important items you’d need if you had to leave quickly. Put the bag in a safe place, or give it to a friend or relative you trust.
- Consider putting together a “stalking sack” that includes the stalking log, a camera, information about the offender, etc.
Safety at work and school:
- Give a picture of the stalker to security and friends at work and school.
- Tell your supervisors. They have a responsibility to keep you safe at work.
- Ask a security guard to walk you to your car or to the bus.
- If the stalker contacts you, save any voicemails, text messages and e-mails.
- Give the school or daycare center a copy of your protective order. Tell them not to release your children to anyone without talking to you first.
- Make sure your children know to tell a teacher or administrator at school if they see the stalker.
- Make sure that the school and work know not to give your address or phone number to anyone.
- Keep a copy of your protective order at work.
Help is available
In Bucks County
NOVA 24-Hour Hotline: 1-800-675-6900
A Woman’s Place 24-Hour Hotline: 1-800-220-8116
For More Information:
The National Center for Victims of Crime- Stalking Resource Center
Crime Victims Hotline: 855-4-VICTIM (855-484-2846) from 8:30am to 7:30pm. Online chat available 9:30am to 6:30pm.
Watch the above segment to hear a NOVA advocate define stalking and what to do if you are a victim.