How has the pandemic affected local services and charities, their staff and the communities they serve? Sarah Cheverton talks to Anna, Digital Media Investigations (DMI) Advocate at Aurora New Dawn, a Portsmouth-based charity working with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking.
Sarah Cheverton: Can you tell me about your role at Aurora New Dawn? What does a Digital Media Investigations (DMI) Advocate do? How long have you been in your role and how did you get involved with Aurora?
Anna: I was lucky enough to join the Aurora team a little over a year ago now, while studying for my postgraduate degree at the University of Portsmouth. In my final year I was unsure what path I wanted to follow but knew that I had an ambition to work in the domestic violence sector. After speaking to career advisors at the University, it became apparent to me that my interests in this field were heavily aligned to Aurora’s ethos. I had heard of their work throughout my studies and on social media and was always in awe of the incredible work that they do.
As a DMI advocate I support victims of cyber based stalking, domestic abuse and sexual violence related crimes. Cases I work on can range from instances of revenge porn, situations where a victim’s home has been bugged with listening devices to cases where a perpetrator obsessively hacks and messages my clients over social media. I am available to support victims throughout the whole criminal justice process e.g. prior to reporting, attending court and linking in with police officers.
Every day can be so different as every case is unique, however generally I spend my day providing specialist independent advice, support, and advocacy. Multi-agency work is also a huge part of the job. I am well linked in with specialist DMI police officers who have even conducted home visits to some of my clients to complete cyber safety checks. As Jess said in last week’s interview, it is important to build a web of support around every client so that they are being supported as best as possible by all necessary sectors.
A crucial part of the job, which I love, is educating and providing knowledge to other agencies and sectors about how detrimental the impact of cyber stalking can be. As someone who has first-hand experience of being a victim of cyber stalking, I am passionate about the role and eager to make a difference. Too often during my own journey, I was met with the phrases ‘but it’s only online, it’s not like he has turned up or anything’ and ‘why don’t you just block him?’ Because of this I knew I had to jump at the chance to be involved in a project that not only gives victims a voice, but also challenges the obstacles that so many victims of cyber abuse often face. It is a service I wish had been available when I was struggling with the impact of cyber stalking myself.
What does cyber stalking mean? And how common is it?
Cyber stalking is a set of behaviours that can be best described as the persistent use of unwanted electronic communications and tactics to cause alarm and distress to a victim. Behaviours may include: constant unwanted messaging on social media platforms, hacking, submitting online complaints or bad reviews about the victim’s work, installing spyware on devices and contacting family and friends of the victim.
In my experience, it is extremely rare for a stalking case to be completely without a cyber element. Stalking has always existed, but the rise of the internet and technological advances have provided stalkers with new avenues to get to their victims in increasingly alarming ways. For example, it is now easier and cheaper than ever to buy simple listening devices, cameras and trackers online. These devices can look like nothing more than a teddy bear or a pen – it is unlikely that the victim will ever question what it is. Stalkers are now able to harvest so much more information from the comfort of their own home. The possibilities are endless and every day I am learning new ways that a stalker can infiltrate a victim’s life electronically.
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The Guardian recently reported a surge in cyber stalking during the lockdown. Has this been your experience at Aurora?
With the lockdown decreasing opportunities for some physical stalking behaviours, unfortunately perpetrators are increasingly turning to technological means to access and abuse their victims. The lockdown has given perpetrators of stalking the gift of more time to devote obsessing and fixating over their victims.
Calls and referrals into the DMI advocacy service have increased, and we are seeing a huge increase in cyber related stalking in the service in general. I am available to all my colleagues and other agencies to advise and support on cases. This hopefully provides some extra support to help improve that victims web of support and increase their sense of safety.
I am very lucky to work in a team of such incredible women. With the service having to adapt with the Covid-19 situation, they are always here to support me as well – I do not know what I would do without them!
What impact does cyber stalking have on victims? Has that changed during the lockdown?.
Victims often express a complete loss of control. Our devices are how we communicate with the outside world. Whether it’s that fourth friend request of the day from another fake account, or the 20th message alerting you to their presence, cyber stalking gives the perpetrator the capability of sitting in their victim’s pocket. I have often had chats with my clients where they believe they are going ‘mad’ or say things such as ‘I may be being silly but…’. They do not think that anyone would believe that someone would go to such lengths to install spyware in their homes or hack their emails to get access to all their accounts. Sadly, it is much more common than people would think.
I think cyber stalking is something truly terrifying, and not something that should be downplayed. It is all consuming, and often leaves victims feeling completely isolated and often misunderstood. This is only amplified by the current Covid-19 lockdown as people are feeling more alone and disconnected.
Finally, what signs should people look out for if they’re worried they’re being targeted by a stalker online? And what advice would you give them?
Due to the methods that stalkers are now using it can be very challenging to know when someone is being targeted. If you notice anything odd, or a stalker is relaying things or conversations they should not know about I would always recommend increasing cyber safety and security. This can be done in many ways. For example, setting up two factor authentication and changing your passwords on all your accounts is a great way to add a layer of protection and decrease the likelihood of someone hacking you. If you are concerned that there may be software on your phone, I would recommend completing a factory reset. In most cases this should eradicate the problem. I would also encourage victims to check which apps may be sharing their location. For example, Snapchat and find my iPhone. If you do receive any messages from a perpetrator or notifications showing someone has hacked into your accounts, always screenshot them. Keeping a diary of events is also helpful, particularly if you are thinking about reporting.
Finally, the last thing I would say to any victim of cyber stalking is this is not your fault. We believe you and are here to support you. Please contact us for any advice or support on 02392 479 254.
Aurora New Dawn, supported by You First, have launched a helpline for victims and survivors of domestic violence in Hampshire. The number is 02394 216816 and runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For more information about Aurora, visit their website, Facebook and Twitter. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also find out more about Aurora’s work and the impact the Coronavirus has had on their organisation and the way they work in our weekly series of articles with the charity.