It started in New York. Bella was 14. Eddie was 18. They began dating, and almost immediately Eddie became physically abusive.
Bella, 32, who now lives in Pasco County, Fla., can’t recall the first incident. She says the abuse was so frequent that she only remembers the “big, big stuff,” like the time Eddie body-slammed her into the street in front of her classmates.
Over the years, their relationship was on again, off again. The couple had two daughters and moved to Georgia, and all the while, Eddie abused Bella physically and psychologically. Things escalated when he took the abuse high-tech.
After a few years, he left Bella, moved to Maryland and married one of Bella’s former classmates. But that didn’t stop Eddie from terrorizing Bella through the Internet.
Cyber-stalking is nothing new. Troll the web for information on domestic violence, and you’ll notice something: Many sites contain cautions like WARNING and IMPORTANT PRIVACY NOTICE.
These flashing messages alert victims to a terrifying reality: Technology makes it even harder to escape domestic abuse.
“I’ve seen it change considerably over the last five years,” says Special Agent Anthony Maez, a stalking expert with the New Mexico attorney general’s office. “Technology is being used more to track the victim and stalk them, monitor anywhere that they go.”
Scary stuff. If you’re in an abusive relationship like Bella, then it’s important to understand how abusers pervert technology so you can plan a safe escape.
Account information How it works: If you share a bank account with your abuser, then he (or she) can easily monitor your spending through the ATM, phone and online. For instance, he can see if you make a deposit on a new apartment. Solution: “People forget that the person they’re trying to escape from knows a lot about them,” said Maez, the New Mexico special agent. Open a separate account with a password and PIN your abuser won’t guess. Use it to build up your escape fund.
Internet history How it works: A web browser tracks the sites you visit. When your abuser logs on, he can click on the “history” tab to see where you’ve been online. Solution: Change your browser settings. In Internet Explorer, go to the “tools” menu and click on “InPrivate Browsing.” In Firefox, go to the “tools” menu and click on “Start Private Browsing.”
Keystroke logger How it works: This tiny device looks similar to a thumb drive. It records every keystroke entered into a computer. The abuser plugs the logger into the computer’s USB port or keyboard. Then when he loads the logger into his own computer, he gets a log of everything you’ve typed, such as e-mails and passwords. The logger also periodically takes screenshots. Solution: Always check computer ports to ensure there are no external devices attached.
Remote key logger How it works: This is like a keystroke logger. But rather than installing a tangible device, the abuser sends the logging software as an attachment software as an e-mail attachment. When you download the attachment, you automatically install the logger software. Your Internet activity is sent to the abuser remotely. Solution: Be cautious about what attachments you open, even when using a public computer. “If you feel that your computer is being monitored externally, remotely, then I would definitely involve law enforcement and ask them to do an exam on your computer,” says Maez, the stalking expert.
Social networking How it works: Eddie and Bella’s older daughter, Eve*, is an aspiring singer and rapper. A few years ago, Eddie created a Facebook page to promote the girl’s music. But he began using the site as a way to get under Bella’s skin. Eddie would log on and impersonate Eve, posting negative comments about Bella. Solution: Print out screen-shots as evidence.
Spoofing How it works: The abuser uses software to disguise himself as, say, your mother. When your phone rings, it looks like your mom’s number calling. Harmless enough, right? But when you pick up the phone, it’s your abuser on the other end. A related tactic is e-mail spoofing; the abuser disguises his identify in the “sender” field. In Bella’s case, Eddie created a Hotmail account and website in her name. The site included comments like I am a child abuser, as well as Bella’s name and address. Subsequently, Bella was fired from her job. “What a coincidence,” she says. “I was doing auto financing. Now I’m cleaning toilets.” Solution: Contact law enforcement. A 2010 law makes caller I.D. spoofing illegal nationwide.
Baby monitor How it works: Your abuser eavesdrops on your conversations from the next room. Solution: When a loved one or social worker visits, suggest going for a walk or to a coffee shop where you can talk freely. If this is not an option, use a note or gesture to communicate that you’re in danger.
Wiretapping How it works: When Bella was living in Georgia, a masked intruder broke into her house and attacked her with an iron. She believes it was Eddie. When she called to confront Eddie about the incident, he recorded the call and used it against her. Solution: In Florida, it’s illegal to record a phone call without both parties’ consent. If you’re using a landline, as Bella was, then your abuser has engaged in illegal wiretapping. On a cell phone, Bluetooth technology allows the abuser to collect data and even record your calls from more than 300 feet away. Turn off discovery mode.
CYBER-STALKING & THE LAW: 3 POINTERS
1. Treat it as a crime.
Bella still lives in Pasco County, Fla., with her daughters, now 14 and 9. She’s tried unsuccessfully to file cyberstalking charges against Eddie. She says law enforcement is giving her the runaround.
“They don’t know who’s supposed to pick the case up,” Bella says. “Where’s the crime coming from now?” Is the crime in Florida where Bella lives or Georgia where Eddie lives?
“The actual proper venue would be Florida because the abuser is having contact with Florida,” says Chris Ragano, a Tampa domestic violence attorney. Regardless of where the abuser lives, the victim can prosecute or seek an injunction in the city or county where she resides. In Florida, cyberstalking is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail. But if you already have a restraining order against your abuser, or if the abuser adds a threat to the victim’s family, then the charge gets upgraded to aggravated cyberstalking – a third-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
2. Know the system. It’s hard to prosecute things like Bluetooth surveillance because there’s no expectation of privacy in public. Things get even trickier at home. “If it’s a situation where it’s a family computer in the family home, it’s just like a file cabinet. Everyone has access to it, and there’s no expectation of privacy,” Ragano says. “That’s why you need to install passwords and things of that nature to prevent the abuser from going onto there. But then they can install those types of software programs that can intercept that, and that’s when it crosses the line” into illegal wiretapping.
3. Keep records. Cyberstalking is harder to prosecute than physical abuse because it’s harder to prove. Print out as much evidence as possible to present in court, including text messages, e-mails and screen shots of social networking sites.
*Names have been changed.