Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Could You Be a Stalker's Next Victim?

By Claire O'Boyle

(U.K.) Following a shocking report into the problem of stalking, we look at how police deal with the crime and how in one woman's case, they ended years of abuse from a stranger.

stalker Pictures, Images and Photos

It's a crime that usually hits the headlines when it's linked to A-list celebs, but falling prey to a stalker is something that never crosses most of our minds.

But recent figures show it's on the rise, with a shocking 1 million British women and 900,000 men being targeted by predatory stalkers.

The biggest problem in tackling the crime, according to experts, is that stalking is simply not taken seriously enough in the UK.

Jane Harvey from the Network for Surviving Stalking (NSS) says: "Victims of stalking often try to shrug it off until it is too late, but the main problem is that the authorities don't take it seriously."

A report carried out for NSS found 77% of victims waited until they were targeted 100 times before going to the authorities.

"That's much too long," says Jane. "It's amazing what levels of abuse people will put up with - they don't identify the abuse as stalking.

"They tell themselves that if they ignore it, things will fizzle out. But if something happens or you are contacted repeatedly in a way that causes you alarm or distress, that is stalking."

Jane says around 50% of all cases are carried out by ex-partners, but in the other half of cases, victims have never had particularly close relationships with their stalkers - and many have never even met

them. "It can often be someone known through work, or a friend of a friend," explains Jane. "In other cases it could be someone you pass in the street.

"And with the internet as huge as it is, sometimes people never set eyes on their stalker."

Jane says one of the main problems is that so many of us are brought up to be polite and kind, and rather than rebuff unwanted attention, we often let it go.

"It means sometimes we find ourselves in slightly awkward situations and don't make it clear that we're unhappy," says Jane.

"For example, with repeated text messages from someone we don't know well, we might reply politely to one or two.

"Then after that we might ignore them, when perhaps the best, although not necessarily the easiest, thing to do is say you do not want any more texts." The latest figures relating to the number of victims in the UK are terrifying.

"Victims must get the help they need," says Jane. "Until you speak to someone who has been stalked, you never fully understand how terrifying it is.

"One man I've talked to is being stalked online. The stalker seems determined to wreck his life - he spreads lies about him on forums and chat sites.

"It's extremely distressing, this man is being used as a plaything for the stalker's amusement."

According to the law, if any unwanted or abusive acts happen on two occasions, you can go to the authorities.

Despite this guidance, the police came under fire in light of the report, and one senior officer even said forces have let victims down.

However, according to Jane, the police can be fantastic in some areas, while other victims are left floundering on their own. "It sounds like a cliche, but this is another postcode lottery," she says. "But at least now, the issue is on the agenda, and the good work done by some forces can roll-out across the UK."

One victim who had a positive experience with the police was mum-of-two Alexis Bowater, whose dangerous stalker Alexander Reeve was jailed for four years last April.

"I knew from the very first email this guy wasn't right," recalls Alexis, 39.

"I was working as a news anchor on a local TV station, ITV Westcountry, and these horrible emails came in. Some were so graphic and frightening I don't want to repeat what they said. I told my boss about the first one, and we told the police almost immediately."

The menacing messages, threatening rape and violence, chipped away steadily, telling a pregnant and petrified Alexis, "I'm watching you," and, "I know where you live".

"He was clever in the way he wrote the emails," says Alexis. "You couldn't tell if he really knew anything or if he was actually watching me. Not knowing was the most frightening part."

To the news presenter's relief, the messages slowed down when she went on maternity leave to have her first child.

But when she came back and went on screen, visibly pregnant for a second time, the emails resumed and were more menacing this time.

"It was worse with my second pregnancy," she recalls. "He sent obscene, horrible messages about me, and he was threatening my unborn baby. He said he hoped my baby would die."

Alexis became increasingly anxious throughout her pregnancy as fears about her stalker's intentions grew.

"I sometimes did late shifts at work and would have to drive myself home at 11pm," she says. "I remember taking detours because I thought someone was following me.

"I noticed someone tailgating me a couple of times, but I'll never know if it was him.

"People talk about this state of hyper vigilance you get into when you're being stalked, and I'm sure I was there.

"One night when I was pregnant again, my first baby woke me in the night. My husband was away for work and I went into the baby's room to comfort him. I heard a creaking on the stairs and thought: 'It's fine, I'll just get my mobile and call for help'. But my phone was in my bedroom. I'd have to pass the stairs to get it. I decided I'd crawl through a window to escape."

Luckily, Alexis didn't need to flee. There was no one in her home that night.

But police took her fears seriously and installed an alarm at the news presenter's home.

In many cases of online stalking, tracking the culprit is an enormous task. But in Alexis's case the police found a clue at an internet cafe in Chichester, West Sussex.

Unfortunately, they couldn't trace him any further, and he stopped sending emails.

Then in May last year the messages started again and officers took eight weeks to snare him. "In those weeks towards the end, I was frantic," she says. "I knew the police were closing in on him, but would it make him more angry?"

In April, after two years of harassment and threats, 25-year old Reeve was jailed and given a lifetime restraining order.

"Putting a face to it all should have meant more, but he was just a sad man. He meant nothing to me," explains Alexis.

She says the police helped her cope with the ordeal. "They were very supportive. But it's a pity if it's not that way across the country because it's a scary thing to go through. The police did a good job in my case, so hopefully other forces can follow their example."

For support and information about stalking in the U.K., visit http://nss.org.uk.


What you need to know -

  • 18% of stalking victims have been sexually assaulted
  • 12% say the stalker threatened to harm their children
  • 15% say their pets have been abused by the stalker
  • 67% of victims were spied on by their stalker
  • 40% of stalkers got details from the victim's friends
  • 27% got information from the victim's workplace or family
  • 77% of victims didn't go to the police until they'd been bothered 100 times

What to do if you're stalked -
  1. Show no emotion, regardless of how scared or angry you are. Never confront or agree to meet your stalker.
  2. Call local police to find out which officer is running the case.
  3. Tell your friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues.
  4. Keep evidence like texts, emails, letters and parcels. Record anything that could be proof and keep a diary.
  5. If you get calls from a stalker, in the U.K. use 1471 to track their number.
  6. If you're being followed, try to stay calm. If you're driving, head for the nearest police station to get help.
  7. If you ever feel in imminent danger, call 999. (or 911 in the U.S.)

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