Burton Kelso, Tech Expert
How to Stop Domestic Abusers From Controlling You Through Your Tech Devices
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month which is designed to bring awareness to and end domestic violence. Domestic violence affects millions of people every year and includes, both women and men, of every status, race, religion, and culture. Most people think it just involves physical abuse but it also involves verbal abuse, stalking, and isolation. Unfortunately, as technology advances, abusers find new ways to continue abusive treatment through GPS tracking, text messages, email, cyberbullying, and social media stalking. As a technology expert, I am always looking at ways I can help people get more from the technology they use to increase there quality of life. If you or someone you know is suffering domestic abuse through technology, here are some tips that can help you stop your abuser from harming you through technology.
Abuse in any form is about power and control and technology can enable abusers to terrorize their victims from vast distances. My team and I have encountered victims of technology abuse over the years and it seems to be getting worse. Most modern tech devices don't take much expertise to use and most features can be controlled from the abuser's smartphone. A quick search of your computers, smartphones, and tablets can give your abuser access to your passwords for your online accounts. These can include, social media, banking, smart home, and security, even your vehicle. They can even bypass being on your blocked caller's list by use spoofing technology to talk to you or leave threatening voice mail messages. They can take control of your smart home locking you outside of your home or use your smart home hubs to harass you and your family. An abuser can log into your cloud accounts and download personal photos to use to blackmail you. They can also use GPS features on your smartphone, automobile, and fitness tracker car to track you and know your daily habits. Social media can even be used as a means to control you as well.
Take steps to protect your devices from your abuser by following these steps:
1. Recognize the warning signs. When encountering victims of domestic technology abuse, I always hear the same warning signs such as their abuser always knowing where they are and who they are spending time with. I hear other things as noticing that email and social media accounts being tampered with, emails that they didn't delete ending up in the trash can, people unfriended that they didn't unfriend. There is also the sign of online accounts being logged into at times the person wasn't on or near a smartphone or computer. What's worse, pictures that were taken meant for personal use can wind up on social media as a means to control or blackmail the victim. Take special note of when you log into your accounts and be very careful what you are sharing on your social media accounts. Most online services keep a log of when and where accounts were logged in, so you can also check account logs to see when your accounts were logged in.
2. Take an inventory of all of your technology. In our digital age, everything is connected to the cloud which is why it's important for you to make note of all your gadgets. Smartphones, computers (including your kids), smart home items, and your car could be used by your abuser. Take special care if your abuser gave you any of these items or set them up as they could have been configured to spy on you. Also, take note of any accounts that you may share and accounts you have shared your login information. Family accounts that come with Android, Windows, and Apple automatically update all devices when you make changes. Apps and changes you make to your devices will be updated on all devices. This means your abuser could be tracking and harassing you with the information you previously shared. In your defense, you can use the family account settings to see if there are devices you don't recognize on your account. If you see some, they could be your abuser's device.
3. Check out the apps on your devices. Sometimes your abuser will install software on your smartphone or computer that can track your keystrokes, your location, phone logs, and text message. If you notice your smartphone isn't holding a charge like it used to, you could have what's called 'stalkerware' installed on your devices. Also if you have any family tracking software installed on your devices, remember those can track your location as well.
4. Use a passcode on your devices rather than a fingerprint or facial recognition. There are some abusers that have become wise enough to unlock your devices with your fingerprint or your face when you're asleep. Passcode technology is more secure, so if you're able to get rid of fingerprint or facial recognition as a login for your devices without arousing suspicion do it. Speaking of passwords, I know many of you are used to saving your passwords in email accounts, the note app on your phone, and even on cloud-based services like OneDrive, Google Drive, or iCloud, but you need to get out of that habit. These cloud-based accounts sync to the cloud so if your abuser has access to those accounts, they will see any changes you make to documents stored on your devices.
Depending on your situation, you might want to wait until you make the following changes to your smart devices. When abusers start to lose control of you and are no longer able to access your tech devices, their behavior usually escalates. Once you get into a safe place, you want to have a technology security expert check out your devices, but here are something you can do in the meantime:
1. Change the passwords for all of your devices and online accounts. Seems like something most people would remember, but they don't. Use the inventory of your tech devices and online accounts to help you change those passwords. When you change account passwords, your abuser may get notified which why it's important that you're at a safe place. You should also establish new email and social media accounts (if you can't rename them) creating account names that do not tie into you in any way. When you're creating those new accounts, make sure you set up 2-factor authentication on your accounts, which will alert you when there is unauthorized access attempted on your accounts. You should consider using a password manager such as the one built into your browser or LastPass. A password manager will help you generate secure passwords that your stalker won't be able to guess as well as helping you remember all of those new account passwords you will have to create.
2. Perform a factory reset of all of your devices. It's important to perform a factory reset on your devices as this will wipe out any 'stalkerware' and device settings that are allowing your abuser to track your movement. Devices include desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets, kids' devices, smart home, and even your automobile systems. For your automobile, you will have to call the manufacture to get this done. Before you perform a factory reset on your devices, make sure you perform a full backup of the information on all of your devices. If you share a mobile carrier account with your abuser, you might consider dropping that account, leaving your phone, and creating a new account with your carrier. If you're unable to do that, consider a prepaid phone plan.
3. Change your privacy settings on your social media accounts. Believe it or not, your social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Pinterest, Snapchat and TikTok can be found with a quick Google search. If possible, change your name on these accounts to an alias (you should change your profile picture as well) to keep your accounts safe from the prying eyes of search engines. Take the time to change your privacy settings on your social media accounts on your computers and your devices to make sure you aren't sharing your friend lists and that your social media account will show up online and that the tracking features built into social media software and apps don't reveal your location. You want to change the privacy settings for web-based email accounts such as Google as sometimes these accounts can reveal your physical location.
4. Use a service to remove your identity off the Internet. Data collection sites get your information from a variety of sources and it can be hard to track down every location where your personal information will appear. Sevices like Unroll.me and Delete.me can make sure your personal information stays off the Internet. You can also send a request to Google, Yahoo, and Bing to have your information removed from search engines.
If you suspect that an abusive partner is using technology to spy on you, seek help. Report the abuse to your local authorities. Visit a public location like a library, or your doctor’s office and ask to use their phone to call your local domestic violence shelter, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-SAFE), or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE). If your calls are being tracked, call your local services hotline, like 211 or 311, and ask to be transferred to a local resource center. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
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