The horrific reality of cyberstalking

Lauren Crosby 6 October 2021

After one date, Joe began sending Amy relentless cyber abuse. It was an ordeal that almost ended in tragedy

“I met my cyberstalker on a dating app. We went for drinks out and food at my place—everything seemed fine and normal.”

Amy Aldworth is a 26-year-old Londoner who works for the NHS. She had her first date with Joe (name changed for Amy’s safety) in July 2020, noting nothing unusual or worrisome about his character. But following the initial drinks and dinner date, Joe started to send messages asking Amy when she had her last sexually transmitted infection (STI) check.

“He was saying he had symptoms of having an STI—like feeling ill. I tried to reassure him that I get checked when I have a new sexual partner and I knew my last test results were negative. But he wouldn’t take that as a good enough answer,” Amy says.

His attempts at contact with Amy escalated. “The messages started to come more frequently. He was bombarding me with phone calls and WhatsApp messages.” Over the course of two weeks following the first date, Amy would sometimes receive up to 17 missed calls from Joe in a three-hour window. “It went from him not feeling well to him saying he had symptoms of HIV. He persisted in telling me I had given him HIV.”

"Amy would sometimes receive up to 17 missed calls from Joe in a three-hour window"

Amy was sure she hadn’t given him HIV, but became increasingly worried he may have given it to her. “I was worried he was a person that goes around to girls, pretends he doesn’t have it, and spreads it.”

She decided to have an HIV test done, and when it came back negative, she told him the result. “But it still didn’t make him stop,” she says. “In fact, it got worse. He would tell me about how awful a person I was and the messages just wouldn’t stop. It really affected my mental health and I started to have quite severe anxiety and depression because of what he was saying in the texts to me.”

Woman stressed while looking at phone

Although she changed her mobile number, Joe found Amy on social media platforms and began contacting her there, often using different accounts to get in touch with her.

“He started finding my friends on social media and messaging them. Then, he found my mum and grandma and told them they were terrible people for letting their daughter/granddaughter potentially infect people with a deadly disease.”

It didn’t stop with social media: “He found my work telephone number and called to try to talk to me there.”

“I didn’t feel safe. He knew where I lived and was finding all my friends and family. The whole experience petrified me.”

"I didn’t feel safe. He knew where I lived and was finding all my friends and family. The whole experience petrified me"

Cyberstalking is a type of tech abuse that happens online and usually involves a perpetrator of abuse repeatedly harassing a woman, often using multiple platforms and accounts to gather information about her, contact her, and even contact her family and friends without consent.

“This is one of the most common forms of tech abuse reported to Refuge’s specialist tech abuse team, which provides in-depth support and safety planning to survivors of domestic abuse whose partners are using technology to harm and abuse them,” says Ruth Davison, Refuge CEO.

Davison shows how the problem of tech abuse, including cyberstalking, is growing: “Between April 2020 and May 2021, Refuge has seen on average a 97 per cent increase in the number of complex tech abuse cases requiring specialist tech support when compared to the first three months of 2020.”

An illustration of a woman being stressed at being cyber harrassed

Although cyberstalking doesn’t take place offline, it often leads to victims feeling terrified and controlled, negatively affecting a woman’s well-being.

“Cyberstalking—just like offline stalking—causes psychological terror, serious alarm and distress and impacts victims’ day to day lives creating hyperarousal and anxiety and long term health issues,” says Alison Bird, Clinical Lead for Stalking at Solace.

“Domestic abuse is, at its core, about power and control and it is always a choice that the abuser makes actively to cause harm,” says Davison. “Cyberstalking and tech abuse are no different. As our lives become ever more reliant on technology and smart devices, abuse is getting smarter too and abusers are using technology to facilitate it.”

Amy phoned the police to log the harassment and three police officers came to take her statement and look at the messages. Unfortunately, it was decided there wasn’t enough evidence to go forward. “They said because I was rude and didn’t seem scared by his messages, my case wouldn’t hold in court.”

"If I didn’t have that support from Refuge, I personally don’t think I’d be here sharing my story because I was suicidal at one point"

When she attended a doctor to get help with her mental health as a result of the cyberstalking, she was referred to Refuge for support to secure all her social media accounts to stop the messages. “If I didn’t have that support from Refuge, I personally don’t think I’d be here sharing my story because I was suicidal at one point,” Amy says.

The psychological abuse suffered by cyberstalking and other forms of cyber abuse is argued by some as having longer lasting trauma than physical abuse. “Many stalking victims report that the psychological abuse is far worse than being hit,” says Bird. “It’s the not knowing what’s next, when and how which leads to hypervigilance and trauma. Victims commonly say they feel like they are stuck in a nightmare and they just want the behaviour to stop.”

Subsequently, Amy placed a complaint in with the Independent Police Commissioner’s Office, and after three weeks, her case was reopened. In September 2020, after months of cyberstalking Amy, Joe was arrested and charged with harassment and stalking. “I got a stalking protection order and he was ordered to a total of 12 months of community service. He had to do some counselling and pay a fine as well.”

Amy urges any person who may suspect they are being cyberstalked to “go with your gut instinct—it’s never wrong.”

For any woman who may be experiencing tech abuse or knows someone who is, remember that you are not alone. You can find out more about tech abuse and how to keep yourself safe at www.RefugeTechSafety.org.uk.

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