Stalking - Understanding How to Protect Yourself

(Information provided is courtesy of the National Center for Victims of Crime, 2000 M Street NW, Suite 480, Washington, DC 20036, 202-467-8700, fax 202-467-8701)

What is stalking?

Stalking is defined as a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention, harassment and contact. It is a course of conduct that can include:

  • Following or laying in wait for the victim
  • Repeated, unwanted, intrusive, and frightening communications from the perpetrator by phone, mail, and/or e-mail
  • Damaging the victim's property
  • Making direct or indirect threats to harm the victim, the victim's children, relatives, friends or pets
  • Repeatedly sending the victim unwanted gifts
  • Harassment through the internet about the victim by: accessing public records (land records, phone listings, driver or voter registration), using Internet search services, hiring private investigators, contacting friends, family, work, or neighbors, going through the victim's garbage, following the victim, etc.

    How is stalking defined in law?

    Legal definitions vary but many states define stalking as willful, malicious, and repeated following and harassment.

  • Isolated acts may not fall under this type of law, but if a pattern is present, the behaviour is generally illegal.
  • In some states for stalking laws to apply, the commission of the offense requires and explicit threat of violence against the victim, but elsewhere an implied threat is sufficient.
  • Under most state laws, the victim's fearful response is built into the legal definition of stalking. This recognizs that the perpetrator's repeated, uninvited pursuit of the victim is by its nature frightening and threatening.

    Is the threatening nature of stalking always apparent?

    To an outsider, the stalker's behaviour can appear friendly and unthreatening. Examples would be showering the victim with flowers, gifts or flattering messages. But, if these acts are unwelcome to the victim, they then become intrusive and frightening.

    Whatever means a stalker uses, the process of stalking induces fear and disrupts the lives of victims.

    Facts Regarding Stalking

    How Prevalent is Stalking?

  • Roughly 1 million American women and 400,000 men in the US are stalked annually.
  • More than 8 million women (8 percent) and 2 million men (2 percent) will be stalked at some point during their lives.
  • Stalking lasts on average, nearly two years according to victim reports.
  • One study showed 25% of victims took time from work to deal with a stalking problem.

    Who are the victims?

  • 78 percent of victims are women.
  • Most female victims are stalked by current or former intimate partners such as spouses, cohabiting partners, or dating partners.
  • A minority of victims are stalked by strangers.

    Who are the stalkers?

  • 90 percent of stalkers are men.
  • Stalkers can be strangers, acquaintances, friends, co-workers, or current or former intimate partners, including spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, and dates.
  • Current or former intimate partners stalk the majority of female victims.
  • A minority of stalkers target victims with whom they have no prior connection or relationship.
  • Stalkers are often socially maladjusted, emotionally immature, insecure and jealous by nature. Like perpetrators of domestic violence, who often stalk their partners, they seek to exert power and control over the victim.
  • The majority of stalkers are not mentally ill. A minority (usually stranger stalkers) suffer from mental health disorders (such as paranoid schizophrenia or manic depression) and exhibit delusional thought patterns or behaviours.

    Understanding Stalking

    Is stalking dangerous?

    Stalking can lead to physical violence resulting in serious injury or even death. It is often difficult to predict when and how a stalker will act or whether the unwanted intrusions into the victim's life will escalate into physical or sexual assaults.

    Some stalkers never move beyond threats or intimidation, while others do so with little warning.

    Victims will never know if the action they take will stop the stalking or make things worse. Stalking is unpredictable. Victims should talk to a trained victim assistance professional about ways to improve their safety, their options, and the resources available to help them report stalking behaviour to law enforcement.

    How are stalking and domestic violence linked?

    Many domestic violence victims report being stalked by current or former intimate partners, particularly towards the end of the relationship. Perpetrators of domestic violence often engage in stalking, i.e., repeatedly harassing victims by phoning them, following them, threatening them, or sending them gifts and notes.

    Stalking is one way perpetrators of domestic violence monitor and control their victims. Their behaviour often escalates as they feel their power and authority slipping away. Current or former partners are particularly dangerous stalkers, committing 30 percent of all homicides against women.

    What is the impact on stalking victims?

    Individual responses vary, but commonly include:

  • Fear - of what the stalker will do next, of leaving the house, of the dark, of the phone ringing
  • Anxiety - about the unknown consequences, the safety of family members or pets, what the future holds, whether the stalking will ever end, how other people will respond if they find out what's happening
  • Vulnerability - feeling totally exposed, never feeling safe, not knowing who to trust or where to turn for help
  • Nervousness - feeling anxious, fearful, jumpy, irritable, impatient, on edge, getting startled by small things
  • Depression - feeling despair, hopelessness, overwhelmed with emotion, tearful, angry
  • Hypervigilance - being continually alert to known and unknown dangers, taking elaborate safety measures against the perpetrator or any suspicious people, repeatedly re-checking locks and bolts on doors and windows
  • Stress - having difficulty concentrating, forgetting things, feeling generally distracted and worried
  • Stress-related physical symptoms - such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Eating problems - not feeling hungry, forgetting to eat, eating all the time
  • Flashbacks or intrusive memories - reliving frightening incidents, not being able to break away from disturbing thoughts, feelings and memories
  • Sleeping problems - nightmares, interrupted sleep patterns, not being able to fall asleep, wanting to sleep all the time
  • Isolation - feeling disconnected from family and friends, feeling no one understands
  • Use of alcohol or drugs - to numb fear and anxiety triggered by stalking incidents, to induce calm and sleep

    What obstacles can prevent victims from seeking help?

  • Fears about how the stalker will respond
  • Threats by the stalker
  • Limited options for relocation to safer housing
  • Language barriers
  • Limited accessibility of victim assistance programs
  • Belief that no one can or will help
  • Fears about the consequences of seeking help (how others will respond)

    Victims stalked by law enforcement officers are among those facing special difficulties.

    What can you do to protect yourself?

    Victims should always trust their instincts and never minimize the stalker's behaviour. If you feel unsafe, assume you are unsafe and seek assistance without delay.

    Community based victim assistance providers include organizations such as crisis intervention centers, domestic violence shelters, and support groups which can provide victim services like counseling, court accompaniment, a safe place to stay, and advocacy. System based victim assistance providers are usually part of the police department or prosecutors office and can provide many of the same services to victims who choose to bring charges against a perpetrator.

    If a community or system based victim service provider cannot assist you, contact the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-800-FYI-CALL.

    Steps Victims can take

    The following suggestions cannot guarantee your safety but are practical steps that may reduce your risk of physical and mental harm and provide you and your family with better protection against stalking.

    Seek Advice from a Trained Victim Assistance Professional

    Victim assistance providers are trained to assist and support crime victims. It's their job to advise and assist on ways to keep victims safe and stop the harassment. They can provide critical information about state anti-stalking laws and your options, help you devise a safety plan, and refer you to local services including emergency shelters. They can walk you through the pros and cons of applying for protective orders, moving hom, or filing a police report.

    Simple Safety Precautions

  • Vary your daily routine as much as you can.
  • Change your travel routes.
  • Get rides with olleagues or friends to and from work.
  • Go with other parents to take your children to school and collect them.
  • Try to leave home and work at different times each day.
  • Do your shopping and other chores with friends or relatives.
  • Plan leisure activities that involve other people.
  • Protect your personal information - shred discarded mail, be wary of unsolicited inquiries, find out how much information there is about you on the internet.

    Formulate a Safety Plan

  • A safety plan is an important step in keeping safe. It involves thinking through short and long-term options in advance, knowing how to access help in emergencies, and having the information about services and resources before you need it.
  • Safety plans should include provision for emergency shelter (in case you have to leave home without warning) as well as temporary and permanent relocation options.
  • If you know the stalker, it is vital to identify safe places to stay and ways to prevent the stalker from discovering your new location. Stalkers with access to their victims' personal information can track and intimidate them more easily.
  • A critical aspect of safety planiing is minimizing contact with the stalker. You should tell the stalker only once (throught registered mail, e-mail or an attorney) to stop harassing you and never communicate again under any circumstances.

    Collect Evidence

  • Keep a written log of all stalking-related incidents and behaviour, noting the time and place and names and addresses of any witnesses. Note how the incident made you feel. This may be important if your jurisdiction has a stalking law that requires instilling fear in a victim.
  • Keep a written record of all communications (especially threats) made by the stalker or third parties by phone, e-mail, mail, or other means.
  • Preserve evidence of all criminal behaviour, including letters, packages, photos, video and voice mail, and other tapes. Start your own stalking log.
  • Request copies of tapes from commercial surveillance systems as well as from personal video cameras used for security, which may contain evidence of stalking.
  • Document incidents of stalking and the stalker's behaviour carefully. You need evidence of a pattern of harassment in connection with complaints to the policye, criminal prosecutions, orders of protection, and civil lawsuits.

    Working with Law Enforcement

    Make the most of criminal and civil protections in your state

  • Chelk all relevant laws where you live. Victim assistance providers or your local prosecutor's office should have information about state statutes. Find your state laws here
  • Consider what other criminal offenses the stalker has committed, for example: physical or sexual assault, damage to/theft of your property, or breaking into your home. This may make it possible to prosecute the stalker even if they can't be prosecuted under a specific stalking law.
  • Find out what kinds of orders of protection are available and weigh the pros and cons of each type with help from a victim assistance provider.
  • Orders of protection may have a role within an overall safety strategy. They may deter perpetrators who fear the possible consequences of their violation (arrest, prosecution, fines and incarceration) and may also help law enforcement arrest the stalker before they become violent, but there are important safety issues to consider. Be sure to make sure that you fully understand the related safety issues before pursuing an order of protection.
  • Investigate whether a civil action for damages might be an option for you.

    Work with law enforcement

    Stalking is a serious crime. It can inflict severe emotional damage and may lead to physical and sexual violence. Report all stalking incidents to the police. Reports may lead to an arrest or an informal intervention (such as a warning) that sometimes helps stops the harassment.

    If you are reluctant to file a complaint because you have been intimidated or do not believe law enforcement can or will assist you, talk to a trained victim assistance professional.

    If you complain to the police and are dissatisfied with their response, call the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-800-FYI-CALL. They can help you identify who can assist you: local victim assistance providers, your local prosecutors office, district, state or commonwealth's attorney or state solicitor.

    How to help a friend or relative

  • Always encourage your relative/friend to seek professional advice.
  • Remeber that the victim is not responsible for the stalker's behaviour. By sympathetic and understanding and do not blame the victim for the stalker's actions.
  • Get information about local anti-stalking laws and resources.
  • Educate yourself abuot stalkers and stalking behaviour.
  • Offer practical and emotional support.
  • Think of ways you can personally help keep your relative/friend safe.
  • If you do not know how to help, contact a local victim assistance provider or call 1-800-FYI CALL.

    Helpful Organizations

    Family Violance Prevention Fund
    383 Rhode Island Street, Suite 304
    San Francisco, CA 94103-5133

    National Center for Victims of Crime
    2000 M Street, NW, Suite 480
    Washington, DC 20036

    National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
    PO Box 18749
    Denver, CO 80218

    national Crime Victim Bar Association
    2000 M Street, NW, Suite 480
    Washington, DC 20038

    National Domestic Violence Hotline
    800-787-3224 (TTY)

    Privacy Rights Clerainghouse
    1717 Kettner Avenue, Suite 105
    San Diego, CA 92101

    RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)
    635-B Pennsylvania Avenue, SE
    Washington, DC 20003

    Return from Stalking to Crime
    Return from Stalking to Women's Self Defense Institute Mind Body Spirit

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