This week marks the start of National Stalking Awareness Week where agencies across the country join together to raise awareness of stalking and its devastating effects.

Each year the campaign focuses on a different aspect of stalking, to educate the public about this crime, so stalking can be identified and ultimately stopped all the sooner – preventing victims from going through months of fear and intimidation.

This year the focus is on Covid and the national lockdowns, the result of which has seen a change in stalker behaviour. Rather than carrying out their campaign of terror physically, it seems stalkers have moved to more virtual methods, facilitated somewhat by the rapid adoption of smart home devices.

Key agencies such as the Suzy Lamplugh Trust – who run the National Stalking Helpline – have reported a marked increase in the number of victims being stalked through new smart home technology. Items such as digital doorbells and voice assisted devices have seen a massive increase in popularity, with around a quarter of all homes in the UK having at least one for these devices*. It’s expected that the popularity of these devices is expected to continue to grow and over the past year, it seems stalkers have identified them as another route they can take to attempt to control and intimidate their victim.

Speaking about this change in stalker behaviour and the number of reports made to North Yorkshire Police over the past year, Inspector Clare Crossan who leads the force’s Stalking Support Team said,

“While lockdown may have curtailed a stalker’s physical movements, sadly it doesn’t seem to have stopped their fixated obsession to make their victims lives a living hell. All it’s done is made them move to more invasive, digital ways of evoking fear.

“Over lockdown the number of reports we have received from stalking victims, telling us that their privacy has been invaded and their feeling of safety threatened by offenders accessing the tech in their home, has more than doubled**

“Victims have spoken about their smart doorbells being accessed and their movements in and out of the home being monitored, with stalkers knowing whether they have left their property on foot or in a vehicle or being aware of any private details, such as deliveries or visitors to their property.

“Similarly, victims have described how offenders have accessed their smart speaker devices, or ‘dropped-in’ to their voice controlled assistant devices – some of which allow a person remote control over lighting and heating in their home. Lights have been turned on and off and heating turned up or down, all of which lead a victim to feeling a real sense of helplessness and fear inside their own home, that there is no safe space even inside your own four walls. And with lockdown conditions thrown in, it exacerbates the feeling that there is no escape.”

Inspector Crossan continued,

“It’s vital that if an individual has suspicions that they are being stalked, they tell the police as soon as possible on 101 or on 999 in an emergency. It’s understood that on average a victim may live with this kind of intimidation for months, experiencing up to one hundred stalking incidents before reporting it to the police. So please don’t live with this behaviour.

“Stalking is a crime and there are steps we can take to make it stop. We have specially trained officers in our Stalking Support Team who are there to support and safeguard victims and to ensure we secure the very best outcomes for them.

“Please also give some thought to your digital footprint and the devices around you, which may allow someone access to your home or private life. Make sure all of your accounts are secure and your passwords are updated regularly, to keep stalkers out.”

As the National Stalking Awareness Week progresses, North Yorkshire Police will be sharing information and advice on how to protect your smart devices and how and where to report stalking and access support. On Wednesday 21 April the force will launch a short video on across their social media channels and website, where Detective Sergeant Gavin Mayes from the North Yorkshire Police Cyber Crime Unit will give advice on how to best protect your online profile and smart home devices.

For more information on stalking and the campaign, visit www.northyorkshire.police.uk/stalking or follow the forces Facebook and Twitter account. You can also follow the national campaign by search for the hashtag #unmaskingstalking on social media.

If you are being stalked you can report it to North Yorkshire Police on 101 or in an emergency dial 999. If you do not want to speak to police there is help and support still available – visit www.northyorkshire.police.uk/stalking for more information.

*YouGov https://yougov.co.uk/topics/technology/articles-reports/2018/08/10/almost-quarter-britons-now-own-one-or-more-smart-h

**In the year April 19-March 20 202 reports of stalking with a cyber connection were reported to North Yorkshire Police. For the equivalent period April 20-Mar 21 427 reports were received – an increase of 225.