Many fans of the Netflix show will thankfully only ever experience stalking through works of fiction, but the creepy series encompasses aspects that disturb many women’s reality.
One unsuspecting American woman, identified by the pseudonym Sarah, first met her former partner, who we’ll call Will as a nod to the series, on an online dating site.
Will told Sarah he wanted to get off the app as soon as possible, so the pair exchanged numbers and started conversing through text messages. They started dating before deciding to enter into a committed relationship with one another, after which time Sarah started to notice unusual things happening.
Fans of will know that in the series, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) forms an obsession with Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). He monitors her movements, her conversations, her social media accounts and her friends, all the while pretending to be a charming book lover.
One of the things that is so chilling about the series is that many of Joe’s obsessive actions are so simple. He looks meticulously at online profiles and manages to find out a wealth of information from doing so because, like so many of us, the characters he is interested in have been more than willing to share online.
After watching a few episodes of , Sarah described it as ‘scarily accurate’ as she acknowledged that much of what she’d experienced with her former partner was similar to what Joe was doing.
Speaking to , Sarah explained that Will would somehow know about private conversations she’d had with friends and family, despite them being ‘over various social media platforms and text messages’.
At the time, she didn’t know what stalkerware was, but she found out about it after realising Will knew about her private conversations.
Stalkerware is a type of software designed to run in the background of smartphones without the owner’s knowledge, which can monitor and record information such as location, phone calls, text messages, passwords, contacts, photos and emails.
It may take on the appearance of an innocent-looking app, like a calculator, and the information can then be reported back to whoever installed the stalkerware on the device.
Learn more about Stalkerware here:
Sarah isn’t sure exactly how or when Will installed the stalkerware on her phone – she said it could have either been when they were dating or when they had entered into a committed relationship – but when she found out about it she said she felt ‘betrayed and violated.’
How could someone I trusted secretly gain access to everything in my life and continue to lie to my face? It made me question everything he said and did along with his motives.
Emma Moseley, a spokesperson for the anti-stalking organisation Suzy Lamplugh Trust, told that one in five women and one in 10 men will experiencing staking in their adult life.
The disturbing behaviour is characterised by unwanted fixation and obsession and can include direct contact such as phone calls, messages and letters; indirect contact, such as posting about someone online; physical behaviours such as following or loitering, and online behaviours such as hacking. Stalking can also involve threats, criminal damage or assault.
As an online behaviour, stalkerware can be difficult to detect because its spying tools are often independent of the original app that was downloaded to the device. Even if the original stalkerware app is deleted, its software can keep running in the background.
According to antivirus maker Kaspersky, as per Secure List, the number of attacks on the personal data of mobile device users through stalkerware increased from 40,386 users in 2018 to 67,500 in 2019. The number went up even in spite of Google’s efforts to remove all stalkerware-like apps from its store at the end of 2018.
As well as monitoring her private conversations, Will went on to Sarah’s social media platforms and deleted her male connections. Sarah believes Will used stalkerware to ensure she wasn’t cheating on him.
Sarah isn’t alone in having her partner spy on her, as a recent poll conducted by antivirus firm NortonLifeLock and cited by found one in 10 people admitted to using stalkerware to track a partner or ex-partner.
She isn’t sure exactly how much information Will got from the stalkerware, but he would have had access to ‘everything in [her] text messages, calendar, social media, email, pictures, and more’, and Sarah was ‘shocked that stalkerware could monitor so many aspects of [her] life.’
Discussing the danger of the technology, Emma pointed out it allows the user to have access to ‘huge amounts of information about their victim, including their location and any advice they might be getting from police or support services.’
Though the discovery came as a surprise, Sarah admitted she ‘made excuses’ for Will and ‘didn’t treat it as seriously’ as she should have.
Emma told stalking ‘almost never stops without some form of intervention, and generally escalates in both frequency and severity’, but like Joe in , Will came across as a ‘charming nice guy’, and it wasn’t until later Sarah learned he was ‘really a predator with dark secrets.’
As time went on, Sarah noticed some worrying tendencies surface as Will became more ‘controlling, manipulative, abusive and violent’.
Giving some examples of his startling behaviours, Sarah recalled how at one point during the relationship she was playing a drinking game and ended up ‘drinking too much’. As she lay down, trying to sober up, Will ‘attempted to sexually engage’ with Sarah, though she was ‘coherent enough to fend him off’.
On another occasion, Sarah got into an accident and was prescribed pain medication, only to find she ‘kept running out of it month after month’. She started counting the medication, and realised Will must be stealing it. After confronting her partner, Will confessed.
Other worrying instances included Sarah receiving a call from a woman who implied she was in ‘romantic relationship’ with Will, despite the fact he was supposed to be committed to Sarah, and another time she walked in on him and discovered he was having ‘intimate and sexual conversations with another woman’.
Will also once threatened to kill himself with a gun in front of Sarah. She ultimately stopped making excuses for his actions, and the relationship came to an end.
After watching a few episodes of following its release in 2018, Sarah said it was ‘shocking’ how well the creators managed to capture the personality of ‘someone like Joe’.
Offering her advice to anyone else who may find themselves to be a victim of stalkerware, Sarah said:
Once you are aware of being monitored, I would recommend getting out of the relationship as quickly and safely as possible. Normal people do not need to monitor every aspect of your life. It is important that you leave before it escalates and becomes life-threatening.
Not every antivirus program can identify stalkerware, but you may be able to detect if it is being used against you by noting whether there is any unusual activity on your accounts, if someone knows where you are without you telling them, or if they have knowledge of the content of your messages, emails or camera roll.
Stalkerware can be difficult to detect and remove, as deleting suspicious apps may alert the user. If you believe you may be being targeted, conducting a factory reset on your device is a good way to try and remove any programmes that had previously been installed.
Emma recommended anyone who believes they may be being stalked to seek specialist advice, though if you are concerned your device may be compromised it is vital you do not use it to do so, as it may alert the stalker.
Use a trusted friend’s device not connected to your home Wi-Fi, or a public computer or phone, and don’t use your own email address or one you access on your own devices unless you are 100% confident that it is entirely safe.
We would also urge people to report to the police, as stalking is a serious crime which does not go away on it’s own, especially if you feel like you are in immediate danger.
The Coalition Against Stalkerware explains that while programs have been exposed and publicly criticised multiple times, in most countries their legal status remains vague. However, while software developers may not face legal consequences, action can be taken against the person using the program.
Emma stressed that stalking behaviours are not acceptable at any level within a healthy relationship, and pointed out that it has huge, long term impacts on every aspect of victims’ lives, ‘from depression, anxiety and PTSD to the financial impacts of taking steps to make themselves safer and the social isolation of never knowing where is safe.’
There is no need to ‘make excuses’ if you notice suspicious behaviours; seeking help and advice as soon as possible could prevent escalation and ensure you stay safe.