July 24, 2021, 12:49

    ‘I’ve lost my job, home and friends after stalking nightmare – it’s like psychological rape’

    ‘I’ve lost my job, home and friends after stalking nightmare – it’s like psychological rape’

    Walking down the street one afternoon, Claire* noticed a familiar face in a car – and immediately feared for her life.

    "I thought, 'Will he ride on the pavement and kill me?'" she tells The Mirror. "I knew stalking victims are killed – there are many – and I just thought, 'Am I going to end up dead?'"

    Claire is just one of thousands of women to have been stalked during the pandemic, which has turned Britain into a 'playground for predators'.

    Disturbingly, while the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found recorded stalking and harassment offences increased by 20 per cent year-on-year during the first Covid lockdown, this rose further to 31 per cent as restrictions eased.

    Now leading anti-stalking charities have warned they are facing another deluge of reported cases as England looks ahead to 'Freedom Day' on July 19.

    And police say they have seen a change in the methods used by perpetrators, who increasingly turn to cyber space to track victims through social media and home security systems.

    'Pandemic has been stalker's paradise'

    Stalking and harassment offences in England and Wales rose from around 118,500 in April to June 2019 to around 142,000 in April to June 2020, the ONS statistics show.

    They continued to rise in the three months to September, with around 163,000 offences.

    Women isolated at home said they feel like “sitting ducks”, according to Paladin, a national anti-stalking service, which said requests for help leapt 40 per cent during the first lockdown.

    The charity revealed most victims were reporting being stalked via social media, messaging apps and email, but added that physical stalking was happening.

    "The pandemic has been a stalker’s paradise," explains Valerie Wise, national domestic abuse lead for Victim Support.

    "Not in terms of physical stalking, but in terms of cyber stalking. Being able to learn more ways of being more vicious."

    Wise points to a case in Japan, where a man was able to find a woman's home address after zooming in on the reflection in her eyes in a Facebook photo.

    She says it is just one of a number ways in which technology can now be used to track victims – ranging from hidden cameras in gifts to apps which can track a car's location.

    With many domestic abuse victims also subject to stalking, there are also indications that reported cases are going up again as those who felt trapped in their homes during lockdown feel more able to seek help.

    Both Victim Support and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust tell The Mirror that calls to their helplines have gone up since the easing of January's lockdown – and Wise says that anyone who feels pressurised by harassment should seek support.

    "The thing that I want to stress is that any persistent unwanted attention that makes you feel pestered and harassed can be defined as stalking," she says. "Sometimes people won’t recognise they’re being stalked at first.

    "Most people probably like to have a bunch of flowers but if the stalker if giving you unwanted attention and leaves flowers on your doorstep, it’s an indication that that person’s been there and isn’t letting you go.

    "There’s the hidden meaning in it that people often don’t understand."

    'My life has been burned to the ground'

    Before she met her stalker in 2019, Claire was building her career in a highly-paid job, living in a "lovely" flat and had a wide circle of friends.

    Now, she says the predator has "burned my life to the ground".

    Over the course of a year, he bombarded her with messages, turned up at her door uninvited and breached a restraining order multiple times before eventually being convicted in late 2020.

    Have you been affected by stalking and want to speak out about your experience? Contact alex.bellotti@reachplc.com

    "As a victim I’ve lost everything," says Claire. "I lost my home because I couldn’t do my job – I had to take a lesser paid role so I lost my lovely flat.

    "My income’s depleted, my mental health has suffered. I’ve got a diagnosis of PTSD. The psychological effects are vast – I’m much more insular, cautious and it’s really change my life.

    "It sounds blunt, but psychological stalking is like psychological rape. It’s a violation of your right to say no.

    "I said, 'No, I don’t want a relationship' and in his mind it was like, 'Well no, I’m going to have one’."

    Claire first met her stalker while working as part of a volunteer group. At first, he was "charm itself, attentive, really kind and seemingly a very nice person" and she struck up a friendship with him and his wife.

    Soon, however, it became clear that he wanted a romantic relationship and Claire backed away.

    She then began to receive a deluge of texts and messages on social media. Knowing where she lived, the stalker would come to her home and chat to neighbours, while also contacting her friends on Facebook.

    "I didn't realise until I asked him to leave me alone what he was capable of," says Claire. "He bombarded me even when we were in a friendship situation. These people are very clever, very manipulative.

    "Stalkers don't come with a stalking badge, they’re very skilled about what they do."

    Breached restraining order after 'court error'

    Terrified and at her wit's end, Claire contacted the police. The man was charged and given a restraining order, but she says due to a typing error on the court document, he was able to still contact her without fear of prosecution.

    "It was a flagrant breach", says Claire, adding that the stalker was able to reoffend multiple times. She claims she received nothing more than an apology from the court, which left her faith in the police at an "all time low".

    Claire took action into her own hands, setting up a dashcam in her car, coming off social media and even moving to a new address where she knew there were cameras and security alarms.

    If she had to go out in public, she would hide down alleyways so she could see her stalker coming – and she set up a code word with friends she could use if in trouble.

    One day, she saw him following her in a car and feared he could even mount the pavement to attack her.

    "It totally dominates your life," she says. "That’s what they want, to be central stage, and that’s what they become.

    "It’s a psychological game for them. They infiltrate your entire world."

    'I wish I could turn back the clock'

    Unlike many victims during lockdown, Claire says the restrictions made her conversely feel more secure, able to hide away as she became more introverted.

    With the help of Paladin and Victim Support, she requested a review of her case. After finding other police officers "dismissive", she was eventually assigned a female staff member which made a "real difference".

    After collating her evidence, she was able to form a case against her stalker, who was sentenced to two years in jail in late 2020.

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    While the verdict brought much-needed relief, however, she is now having to confront the devastating impact he had on her life.

    "When the stalking’s going on you’re in fight or flight mode, you’re constantly thinking about them," she says.

    "You put your life on hold and only recently have I really started to rebuild it. I realise there’s things I haven't addressed and they’re really hard things.

    "It’s just been a tragedy. I so wish I could just turn back the clock and never had met them. What would life have been?

    "But you can’t do that, so I'm trying to put it to good use to speak on behalf of other women and encourage women to take action. Because without standing up to these people they’ll carry on."

    'We've seen a shift to stalking in cyberspace'

    The Suzy Lamplugh Trust says that early last month, calls to its helpline rocketed year-on-year.

    A spokesperson for the charity said: "Suzy Lamplugh Trust has seen a significant rise in demand to its National Stalking Helpline throughout the pandemic which is continuing as restrictions lift; the first two weeks of May show an increase in demand of around 25 per cent compared to the first two weeks in May 2020.

    "Last summer the helpline saw an increase in demand as we came out of lockdown so as restrictions lift further there may be a further increase in reports of stalking – although other factors such as more people returning to workplaces and spending less time at home may have an impact."

    The National Police Chief's Council (NPCC) also confirmed there had been a shift in stalking behaviour as more predators move their methods online.

    It encourages anyone who believes they may be a victim of stalking to come forward at the "earliest opportunity", so police can work to keep them safe and bring perpetrators to justice.

    Deputy Chief Constable Paul Mills, NPCC lead for stalking and harassment, said: “The initial evidence from police recorded crime, supported by charities that support victims of stalking, indicates a growth during the pandemic in cyber-related stalking.

    "We’ve seen a change in how stalkers target their victims, with an increase in cyber stalking through social media, networking and smart home security devices. Where victims do not use full security privacy protections they potentially are leaving themselves exposed.

    "We’ve also seen a growth in perpetrators using ‘stalkerware’ technology that looks to exploit smart technology to covertly target victims.

    “I want to reassure anyone concerned that the police take all forms of stalking and harassment incredibly seriously.

    "By working with victim groups, technology firms and relevant partner agencies, we are developing an understanding of the current scope, prevalence and usage of such technology, so we can provide enhanced crime prevention to help keep victims safe."

    *Name has been changed

    Need help? You can call Victim Support on 0808 168 9111 or by visiting victimsupport.org.uk. Contact Suzy Lamplugh Trust on 0808 802 0300 or by visiting suzylamplugh.org, or Paladin on 020 3866 4107 or paladinservice.co.uk.

    Sourse: mirror.co.uk

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