Published: 06:00, 30 September 2020
| Updated: 16:00, 30 September 2020
A clinic supporting victims of cyberstalking has been set up in West Kent following a massive rise in reports of cyber crime during lockdown.
As more people are moving online to stay connected, internet-based bullying, harassment and scams have increased - leading to the need for more expert advice.
Cyberstalkers tend to come in two types. The first is usually a stranger on the internet who becomes fixated with the victim and harasses them on various online platforms.
The second is usually known to the victim and takes control of their personal devices and accounts, meaning they can track their location, see the plans in their calendar, access voice-activated services or CCTV.
Linda (not her real name) was maliciously stalked by her ex-husband after she escaped an abusive and controlling relationship. He contacted her relentlessly online and over the phone, frequently seeming to know where she was and who she was talking to.
She started hearing a 'meow' sound in her car when she reached certain locations but found nothing under the bonnet when she stopped to check. Later she realised her ex had set the smart car to make the noise. She also found cameras monitoring her around the house and suspected her ex had access to the home security cameras as well.
Feeling exhausted, scared and trapped, it was only after she reached out to The Cyber Helpline that Linda was able to safely secure her accounts and collect the evidence needed to get her ex a serious stalking charge.
Linda said: "Stalking is like slow murder. It is a terrible experience and one I felt I would never escape. The Cyber Helpline team helped me navigate an online world I just didn’t understand.
"The way they worked in unison with the other parties involved and had a clear plan made me feel safe. I knew I was in good hands. This is a vital service for other stalking victims like me.”
Look Ahead, which runs West Kent domestic abuse services for KCC, commissioned The Cyber Helpline and the Protection Against Stalking (PAS) charity to work at the new West Kent Cyberstalking Clinic, creating a one-stop shop for those in need.
The clinic, in Tonbridge, will be offering 45-minute appointments for over 18s experiencing cyberstalking in West Kent, setting safety plans for victims lasting between three and six months.
Rory Innes, founder and CEO of The Cyber Helpline, which has seen calls increase from 100 a month pre-lockdown to 400 a month since the end of March, said: "Stalking is one of those areas that has a massive impact on the individual. It's notoriously tricky to get help in this area because they can be really long term, have lots of moving parts and too often treated as lots of individual instances by the police rather than a long-term stalking case.
"While there has been increasingly better stalking support, so much of stalking has moved online. But getting cyber-security expertise is really difficult.
"So with The Cyber Helpline being an expert in cyber-security, combining that with a stalking expertise environment means the clinic is unique. You can get experts to tackle the online and offline stalking problem."
Rebecca Swaine, an independent domestic abuse advisor for Look Ahead, said: "When you are facing lockdown and you're trapped in your own home, it's really important that you can access services which make you feel safer not just physically, but also virtually.
"With domestic abuse, it is all about power and control. The amount of time a stalker will spend looking at your Facebook, Instagram, or outside your window is an investment into that pattern of abuse."
She added: "We can still help and support you if you are experiencing abuse. Even through lockdown agencies are still working, agencies are still there to help you. Please just get in touch."
Sam Mercer, Kent Police’s Detective Superintendent of the Protecting Vulnerable People Command, said: "Kent Police received 3,597 reports of online stalking and harassment between 16 March and 16 September 2020. This is 732 more offences than the same period in 2019.
"So far this year we have secured six Stalking Protection Orders, which are an extremely valuable tool as they help us further protect victims. A Stalking Protection Order does not require a conviction of a suspect and can be in place for a minimum of two years and can run indefinitely.
"Anyone who breaches the order risks being fined or jailed, for a maximum of five years per offence, which we hope acts as a strong deterrent.
"We appreciate that sometimes victims want intervention rather than prosecution, particularly in domestic abuse cases, however regardless of the investigative outcome, victims in Kent will always be safeguarded where appropriate and directed to the relevant support services for advice and further help.
"Our officers continue to undergo training, which is regularly reviewed, and the force works with partner agencies to ensure victims are getting the best service available."
For Kent Police's advice on what to do when faced with harassment, click here.