No escape: Stalking has gone digital
We live in a digital world, with cellular "smart" phones, GPS-enabled tracking devices, wireless Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter quickly becoming omnipresent parts of our everyday lives.
That can be good and bad: For every person who wants to track down a former high school sweetheart or college roommate simply to renew old ties, there is another whose purpose in reconnecting is decidedly less innocent.
"Technology is also being used by stalkers," says Michael Ossler, a crime victim advocate at Lakes Crisis & Resource Center in Detroit Lakes. "What we're seeing is victims being tracked by GPS devices or cell phones, or even through social networking sites."
"Even if they're not on Facebook or Twitter themselves, they might be tracked through their family and friends," cautioned fellow LCRC advocate Leona Ulrich.
"Increasingly, we are including printouts from social networking sites as evidence attached to harassment orders," Ossler added. "Social media entries can often be used as evidence to prove stalking-type behavior."
For this reason, LCRC advocates often recommend to their clients that they restrict their social media use, or eliminate it all together, Ossler said.
Cell phone or GPS use should also be limited in some cases, he added.
In one memorable instance, Ostler said, a stalker was able to pursue his victim from Detroit Lakes to her new home in Arkansas -- by copying information off of her cell phone when they were still together, and using that information to track where she might have relocated.
In another instance, Ulrich said, there was a woman "who kept moving from state to state, and shelter to shelter, but her abuser continued to find her, making it extremely difficult for her to feel safe."
January is National Stalking Awareness Month, and both Ossler and Ulrich are involved in a campaign to make people in this community and the surrounding areas served by LCRC more aware of the different forms of stalking, as well as how it might be prevented.
"If more people learn to recognize stalking, we have a better chance to protect victims and prevent tragedies," said Ulrich.
Statistics on stalking
Stalking affects as many as 6.6 million victims in a single year. It is recognized as a crime in all 50 United States, as well as its territories and the District of Columbia -- yet many criminal justice professionals, and even victims, underestimate its seriousness and impact, Ulrich noted.
According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), one out of every five stalkers will use a weapon to harm or threaten their victim, and stalking is considered to be one of the most significant risk factors for homicides involving women in abusive relationships.
Victims suffer anxiety, social dysfunction and severe depression at a much higher rate than the general population, and many are forced to lose time from work or move away from their homes as a result of being targeted by a stalker.
The problem is that unlike many other crimes, stalking is not a single, easily identifiable offense, but a series of acts or course of conduct directed at a specific person, causing that person to experience fear or unease.
In fact, as Ulrich points out, behaviors that might be considered as stalking "are not always negative in nature -- but they are unwanted."
Some acts, like sending romantic cards or flowers, may even be viewed by someone else as endearing -- "but for the person who's being stalked, it's frightening," she added.
"It's considered stalking or harassment because of the repetitiveness of the behavior," Ossler explained.
"Even for those it's happening to, it can feel very surreal," Ulrich said. "The helplessness that a victim feels can be pretty profound, in addition to their concerns for their own safety."
Help is here
The Lakes Crisis & Resource Center, located in Detroit Lakes, offers a variety of services to those who believe they are being stalked, including "emotional support and counseling, advice on legal options (restraining orders, etc.), and advocacy with law enforcement and the courts," said Ossler.
"We also offer a 24-hour crisis line," Ulrich added.
The crisis line can be reached at 218-847-7446. For general information, call 218-847-8572, or visit the LCRC website at www.lakescrisis.com.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.