This edition of "What If?" poses the question: How would you keep...
In This Article
Illustrations by Joe Oesterle
There they stood, right on the sidewalk, just on the edge of your yard. You wondered how long they’d been standing there in the approaching dusk. It was bad enough that you made this unwelcomed discovery. You wondered what your spouse or kids would’ve thought if they had happened to spot your former companion standing out there. They just stood there, looking over the exterior of your home.
That was creepy enough, but then your eyes met theirs. In that instant, a coldness washed over your body. You felt an eerie connection — like predator and prey, and you were the prey in this exchange. This person you thought was part of your past was now standing there staring at you in the present, right through the window of your own home. They smiled faintly at you, but there was no hint of a smile in their eyes. Those empty eyes. That was the part that bothered you the most. It was like no one was home inside the person you once knew. Your “ex” stood there motionless, wearing a smile that was a false as a cheap rubber mask, hiding their real identity and hiding their intentions.
For this installment of RECOIL OFFGRID’s What If? column, there are no fanatical terrorists, savage animals, or extreme landscapes to challenge our skills and our wits. The editors have given us a far more subtle yet equally disturbing scenario — what if we were stalked by a crazed former love interest? This unsettling situation brings many issues into question. How could we defend ourselves and our family against someone with maligned intentions? And how could the law help us? During this unnerving What If? we’ll take a look at some of the strategies for personal security and several actions you can legally take to deal with an unhinged person.
Ongoing stalking from an ex
You, your spouse, and two children
Clear; high 78 degrees F, low 58 degrees F
You’ve been on social media for several years, and with it, your friends list and exposure has grown. Eventually you receive a friend request from an ex you dated in your early 20s who found you on a mutual friend’s list. The relationship didn’t end on the greatest of terms back then, and you can see that they live within a half hour of where you currently reside. You know they may be able to get an idea, from the photos you and your friends have posted, of where you work and the neighborhood you live in.
Although you’re somewhat hesitant at first, you decide there’s no harm in accepting their friend request to your profile, which is usually private and only visible if someone is added to your friends list. You think that enough time has passed, and whatever happened is water under the bridge.
Approximately a month into your acceptance of your ex’s friend request, things start to go sideways. You look at their profile and are concerned by a lot of their posts, which exude an emotionally unstable, desperate tone, with a lot of provocative pictures, many of which are sent privately to you. They’re constantly private messaging you to go have lunch with them to reminisce, catch up, and hang out more often. You politely decline on the grounds that your spouse wouldn’t approve, and you don’t think it’s a good idea, but you wish them well and are glad they seem to be doing OK. Unfortunately, your attempts to be diplomatic aren’t met with the same kind of friendliness you’d hoped for. They don’t go away, but instead they escalate their persistence to disturbing and dangerous levels.
Eventually, your ex starts posting old pictures of you and them together, tagging you, and saying that you were abusive to them physically, verbally, and sexually, and that you’re trying to rekindle their interest and have an affair with them. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for their friends to chime in and start badmouthing you, echoing the accusations. You know your own personal friends know you well enough to dismiss this as jealousy and nonsense, but you’re still worried about colleagues and others possibly looking at this differently and taking it too seriously. Rather than dignify any of this with a response, you decide to block them from any and all accounts they previously had access to.
Unfortunately, the blocking on social media only seems to exacerbate the problem. You start receiving calls on your cell phone and home phone from a blocked number making threats to you and your family. How the heck did they get your number? You’re unsure how they got it and who is making these threats, since you haven’t talked to your ex directly and can’t tell if it’s their voice. You hope this will just go away, but you start to consider filing a restraining order. You’re concerned, however, that this will only provoke additional complications. You see a certain car driving by your house repeatedly, and eventually your 6-year-old daughter says a stranger approached them after school, showed a picture of you, and offered a ride home. This has gone far enough. What do you do to protect yourself and your family from this ongoing, and worsening, harassment? Your life is beginning to mirror Fatal Attraction.
I’ve realized in the evolution of social realms that there are things I have to conform to in order to reach my full potential. Social media is one of those things. My profile is set to public, as my account is used for marketing. Aware of the risks when opening my profile, I still chose to keep it as a public platform. The only personal information I provide on my profile is my name, job title, and email address. I acknowledge the risks associated with not having privacy controls attached to the profile, but in order to have the marketing reach, it was a decision I went into prepared.
When posting content, I always follow a few simple rules: I don’t post personal content, only content relating to outreach as an influencer; I always keep the location tab turned off; and I’m mindful to the content that’s posted — no sexually explicit photos or inciting verbiage. I’m constantly reminding my family that what you post on the internet is there forever. There are some risk factors that we have to accept in exchange for the benefits of the internet and being searchable is one of them. When I post, I do so about fairly generic things, never giving my opinion or diving into political topics. I do this for two reasons: my opinion is mine and I choose not to entice negative interactions, and I’ve also learned that if negative interactions occur, it’s very easy to block and report those with keyboard courage.
If you experience hostile interactions that persist after blocking said profiles, you can contact the social media outlet to file a formal report. If the online harassment is more aggressive and contains actual threats or concerning behavior, a report should also be filed with the local authorities of the city/town you were in when you received the threat. Be sure to take a screen shot or save the content and profile from which the message was sent. If possible, gather the IP address of the user. If the situation rises to the level where you need to track someone down and take legal action against their online activity, it may be helpful to provide authorities with their IP address. The IP address can help identify the offender’s general location. There are limitations to what is made public — you’ll not be able to locate or identify this person, their home, or office. Most devices use dynamic IPs that change frequently, so it’s also difficult to tie an IP to a specific computer or mobile device. However, there is an exception — if an individual has participated in illegal activities, then a law enforcement agency can get a court order for the IP address and submit it to the internet service provider to request the customer’s information. You can also potentially grab an IP address through messaging applications as well:
“For Facebook users: It is possible to find an IP Address using the Facebook messenger/chat application. Using the command prompt tool (for Windows users) or the utility tool (for Mac users) and the netstat function, you can easily trace someone’s IP address on this social media platform. You must first establish a connection with the user — this should be an open connection; therefore, the built-in Facebook chat system is the best option to use. Open a new chat window with the user and ensure that they’re online. Once you’ve opened a chat window, keep it open, and then proceed to open the Command Prompt tool or Utility tool depending on your OS.
Once you’ve opened this tool, simply type in “netstat –an” and press enter. Providing that you have an active connection with the end user, their IP address should then appear after a short period of time. Before executing this command, ensure that you’ve closed any other windows and browser sessions as other IP addresses could be returned also that could be confusing. By obtaining the IP address, you can then do as you wish with it and even report it to Facebook if you feel that the user requires a ban or disciplinary action.” Source: www.hotspotshield.com
“If messaging through your phone: Your mobile phone uses an IP address every time you engage someone through a messaging app, such as WhatsApp and Viber. Messaging app usage is growing incredibly fast. Your IP address is invisible to the person you message, but if-and-when you click on a link in a message, the website you sent it to has access to your IP address.” Source: https://whatismyipaddress.com/get-ip
Even though I may have covered my bases as best I can, sometimes the online threat is someone you know. Let’s say approximately one month ago I was contacted by an ex who I dated in my early 20s. Surely water under the bridge and harmless to accept a friend request, right? If I immediately recognized the communication was inappropriate and left feeling uneasy by the little contact we’d had, I’d start by researching my ex through social media and via internet search tools to see if any red flags come up. If I noted posts on social medial that confirmed my suspicion of a potentially unstable individual, I’d share my findings with my spouse. After conferring with him, we’d continue to monitor the situation, feeling that further intervention may entice or infuriate him.
If things drastically escalated, it’d leave me and my family with no choice but to seek police intervention. In preparation of documenting everything with the police, I’d gather copies of all the online interactions, including social media and messaging. I’d also download my mobile phone records to confirm incoming phone calls. I’d start by filing a police report. Once it was filed, I’d ask for an emergency restraining order, seeking no further contact. An emergency restraining order can be filed as long as the petitioner was a domestic partner at one time. Police intervention is only the beginning. A restraining order is just a piece of paper asking for no contact — it’s not a guaranteed safeguard from an individual who believes they’re above the law. Because my initial actions may trigger additional threatening behavior, there are still a number of things to do to keep myself and my family safe.
I’d call a family meeting to openly discuss the threat to the family, making sure that everyone understood the gravity of the situation. We’d establish a safety plan for my spouse, me, and our children. We have a home security system and motion-sensor lighting, but adding cameras to the exterior and perimeter of the home would provide us some additional layers of safety. The family would utilize the buddy system, ensuring there were no gaps where a single member of the household might find themselves alone until the threat is dispelled.
Requesting a private meeting with my direct supervisor to tell him about the threat, making sure he is fully aware of the severity and recent escalation of behavior, would also be a smart move to document the situation and raise awareness to protect myself and fellow employees. Making sure that building security personnel are also aware of the risk would be another recommended action. Tell a close friend at work what’s happening and ask him/her to buddy up with you while walking to and from the parking lot.
In anticipation of a possible stalker who could’ve gleaned enough info from your social media profile that’d lead to a confrontation with your children when you’re not present, call a meeting with your children’s teachers, principal, and school resource officer. Bring them a copy of the police report and restraining order, and explain the situation, asking for their help in protecting the children while they’re under school supervision. Have an entry and exit plan to the school to ensure the children are only coming and going with an approved family member. If your child is involved in afterschool activities, make sure the staff knows about the potential threat to the family and that the only persons permitted to pick up and drop off the children are you and your husband, unless otherwise specified by the two of you.
I’d also reaffirm my personal defense plan. I have a concealed carry license and choose to carry a firearm when feasible. Unfortunately, there are places I can’t legally carry, such as work and my children’s school. Because of this, I need to make sure I have a plan in place for the gaps in my safety plan. This could include freshening up on my defensive shooting skills by jumping in a class, finding a trainer in hand-to-hand combat, and making an appointment with a counselor for a mental health check — having a threat invade your personal space can be very taxing on you mentally.
Unfortunately, the behavior of others isn’t something we can control, but we can control how we respond to it. Being hyper-vigilant about personal security as well as online security is now more important than ever. The click of a mouse is a decision that takes seconds, but could catastrophically affect you and your family’s lives as you know it. If you could predict the future and see that allowing an outsider access to a seemingly innocent social media page could potentially change your life as you know it, would you still do it? Most wouldn’t. When it comes to posting, less is more, especially when it comes to inviting prying eyes with maligned intentions.
Being constantly bombarded by opposing political views, hateful comments, and general nonsense every time we log onto social media, most of us (hopefully) develop a thicker skin by routinely observing this kind of online activity. Our exposure should prepare us for a certain amount of social media harassment. But if it went beyond the normal trolling and turned very personal, I’d have no problem shutting that noise down. Seriously, I’d close down all my accounts and revel in the spare time I just freed up. But I know, for some of you, this is unthinkable or just not possible.
Do your homework to decide if continuing on social media in the face of personal harassment is worth it. Look into the details of that social media platform and take advantage of any preventive measures regarding functionality, filters, and general use. Of course, you can’t control every time someone mentions your name online, but you can provide less fuel for the fire. Limit the invasion of your privacy by limiting your output. For example, stop posting publicly on Facebook. Choose the option to only post for known friends or customize the list of people who get your posts. Posting “I’m out of town for such and such event” publicly tells anyone who cares to look (both on and off Facebook) that your home is wide open for prowling, burglary, and vandalizing.
For those who crave a little more security in their lives, but still want to share everything they’re doing publicly, don’t post things as they happen. Go with the #latergram approach and give yourself a social media delay. Save that cool picture of your dinner plate for tomorrow morning (when you’re not at that restaurant anymore), and post your vacation pics after you return (not while you’re gone). This keeps strangers and troublemakers from knowing where you are at all times.
Another preventative step is to be more selective about the people you friend or follow on social media. Most of us often click without really looking in the quest to have a broader reach online. Do your research on the people who want to associate with you. Check them and their friends out before you add them to your friends list. If you see things that make you uncomfortable about their posts or profile, it’s best to keep your distance and not associate with them.
Let’s say that I was as careful as I could be regarding the information available about me via social media and online in general, but someone started vilifying me through Facebook. I might ignore or engage, depending on the nature of the posts, and try not to let it get under my skin. From the first threat, I’d take this issue very seriously and deal with it swiftly, but not by replying with an equally threatening response or some snarky remark to prove how brave I am. I’d use one of the best legal weapons that I could wield as a victim of harassment — documentation.
If you’re taking the “high road,” you have to expect harassment to be resolved through legal channels and the best way to solidify your standing is with proof. Document everything they say and do. Take a picture of every threatening text message. Get a screenshot of every nasty Facebook post (since they can delete the post on their end). Make note of the time and duration of every harassing phone call you receive, recording them if possible. Each and every time you encounter this person, tell them to leave you alone and document the interaction. With tangible evidence to show a judge, you’ll have a better chance of getting a conviction or obtaining an order of protection if things escalate to that point.
In addition to documenting each nasty interaction, you could also begin a little research on the person who has begun threatening you. In the case of our scenario, being stalked by an ex, you already know who they are — but see what else can you discover. You don’t have to hire a private eye, but a background check or online search could tell you a little more about the current state of the person you thought you knew so well.
One big issue with stalking charges is laws are vastly different between jurisdictions. Your situation (and outcome) may be very different if your stalker is outside of the state where you live, or even outside of the country. Talking to an attorney can let you know what laws are being broken, if any, and legal counsel can give you the information you’ll need if you have to take the “next steps” with local law enforcement.
Hopefully, things don’t go so far that you need to see a judge. If the abuse is only occurring on a social site like Instagram or Facebook, read through the site rules and notify the site owners about abusive comments. Due to frequency of online abuse these days, a number of social media sites have to provide a way to block individuals. If enough complaints are logged, the social media site can either lock the person’s profile or ban their IP from visiting the site. Even if the harassment happens outside of the social site, but points back to it, the site owners will likely be on your side — they don’t want to be involved in a dispute or lawsuit, and they don’t want to receive bad press.
Unfortunately, having someone thrown in Facebook jail is not the solution to every situation. It may just push them over the edge. When the harassment is persistent or includes the threat of violence, it’s time to contact law enforcement. But here’s another problem — cyber bullying and online stalking are relatively new issues as far as lawmakers are concerned. Many states don’t yet have laws with clear-cut definitions on what constitutes these issues. When the laws aren’t in place, it can be hard for law enforcement and attorneys to stand up for the victims. Plenty of jurisdictions are considering the enactment of laws that regulate online harassment, but most legislation moves at a snail’s pace — if it moves forward at all. Talk to your lawyer about the orders of protection that are available in your home area.
If law enforcement in your jurisdiction is powerless to help with the type of online harassment you’re receiving, or your stalker just won’t go away, there’s a way the law can help — civil action. Depending on the documentation you have, you may be able to build a civil case against your stalker. If their comments and actions interfere with your business relationships, you may have a viable case. If your stalker is spreading lies in print somewhere, you could possibly go after them for libel (damaging someone’s reputation by writing falsehoods). You could even run the “infliction of emotional distress” angle.
In any case, an attorney would be the best resource for information on the most appropriate course of action in your jurisdiction. You may even be able to go after the social media site for not removing slanderous videos and libelous posts. These entities will likely have deeper pockets than your stalker, making it possible for you to get your legal fees back (and then some). But don’t expect a “win” overnight. Legal battles can drag on for years. Filing lawsuits and dealing with courts can be almost as scary as your unrelenting harasser, but you’re within your rights to protect yourself and your family in these uncomfortable (and even dangerous) circumstances.
So let’s say you got that restraining order; what happens when the restraining order doesn’t work? When the online threats escalate to unwelcomed notes placed around your property, “hang-up” or harassing phone calls day and night, or suspicious behavior around your home and family (e.g. spying on your home or approaching your child in public), how can we handle that? Now we’re away from the cyber issues and getting into criminal activity that the local police can address. Again, document everything! Don’t touch that threatening note on your car, or your slashed tires — that’s evidence and you don’t want to contaminate it. Call your local law enforcement and get them on scene.
Now, what if you encounter the stalker yourself, or your family runs into them, out on the street? When they’re in a public place, that’s not against the law. I’d simply leave without engaging the person. If they try to communicate with you or your family members in a negative way, leave and document it and see if you can accumulate witnesses. If they come onto your property, that’s trespassing and you might just win that round (with proof). If I were faced with an escalating situation at home, I’d definitely add extra security precautions around the house. If I didn’t already have an alarm system, I’d get one. And you’d better believe it would be a system with video cameras. I’d also beef up the door and window locks, and make sure everything is secure before going to bed each night.
And what if offline harassment starts to encompass workplace stalking? Tell your employer about your situation. Your stalker may attempt to file complaints against your work or get you in trouble at your workplace. Once notified, your bosses can keep an eye out for anything odd, such as mysterious workplace complaints against you. Sure, it’s embarrassing, but you’ll need your staff in the loop for your own safety and theirs. Pride won’t shield you from someone looking to ruin your life.
What if your stalker made an anonymous report to Child Protective Services that you (and/or your spouse) were sexually abusing your kids? Your kids would be taken away from you within the hour. Or what if your stalker called 911 from a payphone and said you were making bombs in your home and you planned to use them tonight? Can you say “Hello, SWAT team?” Or what if your ex simply burned your house down? The bitter truth is that you can’t always predict how far it will go. Assume this person may be psychopathic and there are no limits to their violent compulsions. Collect enough evidence to get your “ex” locked away if possible, and try to reassemble your life with a mindset of personal security.
Mental health is a serious matter that everyone should work to educate themselves about. Can we determine if someone we’re only moderately familiar with is going through a mental health crisis, if they’re lonely, heartbroken, or simply an evil person who finds fulfillment in persistently inflicting harm on you and your family? It can be hard for even professional mental health workers to make that distinction without thorough evaluation. Are most of us in the position to make that diagnosis through a computer and try to help them or rationalize with insanity? Not likely.
It’s important to seek professional help when dealing with an individual who is either inside or outside your personal circle and now projecting their compulsions on you. Talk to authorities, document everything, take photos, let local law enforcement collect any evidence, and keep your friends, family, and coworkers in the loop. There’s a broad spectrum between actions of a scorned ex and a sociopath, but across that span, the unwelcomed behaviors of these individuals can have a lasting impact on you and those around you. Don’t wait for things to go from bad to worse. Reach out for help as soon as you recognize there’s a problem.
And remember, we got by for many years just fine without social media before it became a source of human interaction. There’s no harm in shutting it down if you think it’d make you safer. Continuing to dabble in vanity-driven posts but expecting complete protection of your privacy at the same time isn’t realistic. There’s no solution for bad judgment except changing the behavior that’s provoking the problem.
Tim MacWelch has been a survival instructor for more than 20 years, training people from all walks of life, including members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, the State Department, DOD, and DOJ personnel. He’s a frequent public speaker for preparedness groups and events. He’s also the author of three New York Times-bestselling survival books, and the new Ultimate Bushcraft Survival Manual. When he’s not teaching survival or writing about it, MacWelch lives a self-reliant lifestyle with his family in Virginia. Check out his wide range of hands-on training courses that are open to the public at www.advancedsurvivaltraining.com.
Hana L. Bilodeau
Hana L. Bilodeau has over 15 years of law enforcement experience, serving both locally and federally. Most recently, she spent time with the Federal Air Marshal Service covering multiple domestic and international missions. Hana has a wealth of knowledge in a number of different defensive modalities to include her present role as a full-time firearms instructor for SIG SAUER Academy. Hana is also a per diem deputy with the Strafford County Sheriff's Office, allowing her to stay current with the law enforcement culture. Learn more at www.sigsaueracademy.com.