Karen A. had recently ended a relationship with her boyfriend, but she soon found it impossible to escape his stalking.
Her ex-boyfriend would follow her as she drove to work or ran errands. He would inexplicably pull up next to her at stoplights and once tried to run her off the road.
One time, her ex showed up at a bar she was visiting for the first time, on a date, which is when Karen realized that her ex-boyfriend wasn’t simply guessing where she’d be and it wasn’t a coincidence.
In fact, her ex had been tracking her after he installed a GPS application on her phone. According to Karen, “He told me no matter where I went or what I did, he would know where I was.”
The reality is, there are thousands of people who probably have a similar story, which is increasing due to high-tech stalking methods. Most of us use the GPS on our phones to find places, but these same tools can easily be abused to harass and stalk innocent victims.
“As technology advances, it’s going to be almost impossible for victims to flee and get to safety,” according to Cindy Southworth, director of technology at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
What happened to Karen is a prime instance of stalkerware, which is basically software designed for the sole purpose of spying on a specific person.
The difference between stalkerware and other malicious computer viruses is that stalkerware is usually deployed at a specific target. For example, Karen’s ex-boyfriend used an app that followed her specifically, not other people.
On the other hand, when a country like Russia or China use a computer virus to target Americans, they typically target thousands of victims, who by chance click on a website link containing a virus.
In short, spyware or malware rarely single out individuals, whereas stalkerware is generally perceived as software that anyone can use in order to spy on one particular person.
The warning signs
If you find yourself receiving unusual social media messages, text messages, or emails, you should delete them without clicking on any links or downloading any files.
If a stalker is trying to deploy stalkerware, they need you to respond to a malicious message or they need physical access to your phone.
In the case of potential physical access from your stalker, it can take only minutes for stalkerware software to be installed on a device.
If your smartphone or laptop goes missing and reappears with different settings or changes that you do not recognize, this may be an indicator it has been compromised.
What to do if you are a victim
Run a virus scan. Whether you are using a computer or smartphone, antivirus software should be installed and run to detect and remove Stalkerware. This is the best and simplest solution to avoid and detect stalkerware in all cases.
However, stalkerware is oftentimes designed to operate undetected, so make sure you are using quality anti-virus software such as McAfee.
Protect access to your device. Always use a PIN code or password to protect your device. You can also use fingerprint access to protect your smartphone from unknown altering.
If you are going through a divorce or ending a business relationship, consider changing your PIN or login to your devices, in the event the other party tries to access your information.
Factory reset. Oftentimes stalkerware is designed to be undetectable. For this reason, a factory reset may be your last option to remove stalkerware. If you decide to do a factory reset, grit your teeth and do it, but make sure you back up important data first.
Finding and eradicating stalkerware isn’t easy, but if someone knows far too much about your whereabouts and activities, you have to at least consider the possibility that stalkerware is on one of your devices.