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Approximately 760 people are killed by their partners in the US each year, according to the 2016 Associated Press analysis. And way more women are captive to domestic violence at home, whether it’s emotional, physical, or financial abuse. 

In an increasingly digitized world, domestic abusers are finding new avenues to control and manipulate their partners. Technology has earned a permanent place in the abuse playbook and it’s crucial for survivors to know the risks associated with digital abuse. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, read this guide to learn how to ensure digital safety as a domestic violence survivor

Is there stalkerware on your device?

Stalkerware, also known as spyware or spouseware, is a form of malware that allows to remotely monitor someone’s activity: intercept their messages, access their GPS location at all times, listen in on calls, and more. 

This might sound like something from a spy movie, but the terrifying truth is that those programs are easily available to consumers — abusive partners can download them from Google Play. According to some estimates, as many as tens of thousands of people might have fallen victim to stalkerware installed by their partners or family members.

Most of the spyware ends up on the victim’s device in one of two ways. Either the abuser physically installs the program on the victim’s device, or they send them a malicious file that triggers the installation of the software. 

It’s hard to know for sure whether your device has been bugged. You can, however, look for these flags:: 

  • Your device behaves differently than it used to.

  • Your abuser sent you a suspicious attachment that triggered a download process.

  • Your abuser knows way too much about you: where you are, who you talk to, what you search for online.

  • Your device’s battery life is a lot shorter than it used to be — if you have tapping software running in the background, it will likely consume quite a lot of battery power.

  • If you have an iPhone, search your phone for an app called “Cydia”. It’s an app that allows users to install software onto jailbroken devices so it’s a strong clue that your device has been compromised. 

If you don’t think you have stalkerware on your device but are worried that your abuser might attempt it, there are precautions you can take. Secure all your devices with new passwords and PIN codes that your abuser won’t be able to guess. Don’t use the biometric locks as someone could scan your fingerprint while you’re asleep. 

Once that’s done, be extra careful about unlocking your devices. Your abuser might try to shoulder surf so try not to insert passwords and PINs while they’re around. 

What to do when you discover spyware

All signs are pointing to you being spied on? Now it’s important to consider your next steps. Confronting your abuser about the spyware might result in an escalation of abuse so proceed carefully. 

Security expert and activist Elle Armageddon suggests using your devices as if nothing happened until you can make a safe escape. Talk to friends, browse the Internet, and post on social media in a normal fashion in order not to alert your abuser that anything is amiss. 

Remember, however, not to perform any sensitive tasks on the controlled device. Don’t talk to others about the abuser and don’t search for exit plan options. Instead, try using a prepaid phone or a desktop computer at your local library. 

If possible, conduct confidential conversations in person. Leave your phone in the car while out for lunch with a friend so you can confide in them safely. It’s important to be transparent about your situation with at least one person.  

When you eventually make your escape, leave your bugged device behind. Having a tracking device with you will put you under even greater risk. Have a backup phone ready so you can use it to communicate with friends and family. 

Secure your personal data

Domestic abusers often use taking control of a victim’s personal documents as a form of manipulation. To prepare for the worst-case scenario, make digital copies of your documents with a scanner or simply by taking photos of them. 

If you think you can trust your device, upload copies to your cloud. Otherwise, buy a USB stick and keep it hidden from the abuser but accessible enough that you can grab it quickly when making your exit. 

Some of the documents you might want copies of include: passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate, your children’s documents, driving license, bank statements, medical records, and insurance policies. 

Prevent economic abuse

Economic, or financial, abuse is a form of domestic abuse. The abuser uses the victim’s financial dependence to manipulate them and make exiting the relationship even more difficult. It’s important to note that even if there isn’t real financial dependence and you’re earning a living on your own, the abuser might try to seize and control your money to force you into dependence. 

In order to prevent that, you need to secure your bank account. Your abuser likely has access to your bank statements, credit card details, and other sensitive information that could allow them to impersonate you through online banking. Call or visit your bank and request that they permanently disable internet banking for your account. 

If you only have a joint bank account with your abusive partner, it’s important that you can open your own account. Naturally, it wouldn’t be safe to receive your financial information at home, but you can open a post office box for sensitive mail. You can obtain a post office box from the United States Postal Service or vendors such as Parcel Plus, Mail Boxes Etc., or The UPS Store. Use your secret bank account to save money for your escape, if possible. 

Seek help 

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the US National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit their website for a live chat and a list of further resources. Make sure you’re performing the search and the call from a trusted device.