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How To Respond When Mobile Devices Are Used To Stalk

In January, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article about the use of mobile devices in stalking and domestic violence cases. Not only do stalkers--including jealous spouses or significant others--attach GPS devices to victims' vehicles to track their movements; they may sometimes even download apps or spyware onto victims' smartphones to monitor not just their movements, but also even their communications. Voice calls can be overheard, while key loggers record text messages, emails and instant messaging or chats.

The danger to victims should be apparent. Victims trying to make escape plans risk having their safety codes and travel arrangements found out. Even innocent communications can be used against a victim who may not realize the extent of a partner's jealousy.

As a law enforcement officer, you may be aware of these issues; if so, you probably know that there are limits on what you can do in cases like this. As the Post-Dispatch pointed out, in divorce proceedings in that region, judges tend to allow high-tech tracking to strengthen civil cases, and do not intervene unless a threat or harassment become apparent.

Even so, it may be difficult to gather enough evidence to support criminal charges -- assuming you have the right training and equipment to do so to begin with. So what can you do?

1. Recognize when high tech stalking may be occurring.

According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), a victim who tells you that someone in his or her life “knows too much” about his or her movements, communications or other activities--who can repeat conversations word for word, is familiar with online contacts, or has precise location details, may have a digital stalker.

2. Assess the total risk.

Know where digital devices can be hidden in the home, vehicle(s), and other areas, and get the victim’s consent to search these places. Cell phones, GPS devices, digital video and/or audio recorders can all be used to monitor victims. Wireless hard drives, GPS devices, laptops or desktop computers, and even gaming equipment can all be used to store this evidence, as well.

Log the devices the victim knows about, and any devices he doesn’t. Ask how many of the various types of devices the suspect owns, keeping in mind that as the price of high tech drops, it is relatively easy to obtain new devices such as prepaid mobile phones—which  can be used as cheap GPS trackers or listening devices, besides their conventional use.

3. Tag all sources of potential digital evidence and get it imaged.

These days, spyware can be installed on smartphones as easily as it can be loaded onto computers. Victims may delete upsetting text messages, but these -- along with call logs, images and emails -- may be critical pieces of evidence that need to be forensically extracted and analyzed.

The victim probably depends heavily on her phone, so help her understand that the phone you’re tagging has been compromised, that it’s no longer safe for her to own and that she needs a new one. Help her select a prepaid device, or find a local shelter that provides donated devices.

4. Help the victim understand the risks of social networking, smartphone usage and other digital resources.

Assess how he’s using his mobile device, the internet, GPS, gaming, and other digital devices and activities. Explain the difference between simple and complex passwords, and the importance of unique passwords for each device or service.

Show him how offenders can use geolocation tags in his real-time image uploads to learn where he is, how social networking or other apps’ location-based services can disclose his location, and any carrier-specific location technology that may be in use.

Also explain how the use of these technologies by people he knows -- partners, children, friends, and coworkers -- can be a “weak link” in his overall safety plan, and help him develop a plan to educate them.

The NNEDV describes these issues in detail in its tip sheets, “Technology Safety Quick Tips,” “Online Privacy and Safety Tips,” and “Cell Phones: Location Tracking & Sharing.” Find links to these resources at the end of this article.

5. Encourage the victim to document everything.

Help the victim understand that good documentation will help her case move forward. Dates, times, what happened, who was involved, location, any phone numbers involved, and other details become important to showing a pattern of behavior. So can basic understanding about technology, like tracing IP addresses.

Even if you do not currently have enough to build a case and the victim must turn to a private investigator or other resource for help, this documentation can be useful when the case does eventually come to law enforcement.

6. Know where to refer the victim for additional help.

Sometimes private investigators can perform the forensic searches that give you the evidence you need, when you have no legal standing to do so. Find PIs in your area who specialize in family law and who know how to preserve and collect digital evidence that you can use in court.

National nonprofit resources such as the NNEDV have educational resources, too.

7. Know where you can turn for training and resources.

If your agency doesn’t have dedicated digital forensic examiners, seek them out in nearby agencies or task forces. This can be an important resource if you suspect spyware is installed on a mobile device and need forensic analysis to prove and analyze it.

Mobile carriers may be an additional source of assistance. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out, some carriers “will text customers if tracking software is activated on their phones, and shut it off upon request from law enforcement.” Most if not all carriers have law enforcement liaisons who respond to search warrants, court orders and subpoenas.

Finally, training is available from the NNEDV, as well as from the Stalking Resource Center at The National Center for Victims of Crime, if you have grant funding from the USDOJ Office on Violence Against Women.

High tech stalking and harassment can be confusing because the technology, and the ways offenders exploit it for criminal purposes, change constantly. But understanding how it fits in a broader context of domestic violence or other more conventional crimes will help you better help the victims in your community.