If you've ever been stalked by someone, you probably know the feelings of fear, anxiety and vulnerability it can cause. Stalkers can completely disrupt their victims' lives for long periods of time and, in some cases, pose serious risk of harm to them. Even if you haven't experienced stalking, it's a good idea to know what it is and what you can do if it happens to you or someone you know.
Definition of stalking
The U.S. Department of Justice defines stalking as "a pattern of repeated and unwanted attention, harassment, contact or any other course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear." All 50 states have anti-stalking codes, with some variation from state to state. But prosecuting a stalker can be complicated by the fact that individual stalking behaviors may not be illegal. It's when these behaviors continue or escalate after warnings to stop that stalking becomes a crime. Being stalked can be terrifying well before it meets a state's legal definition of criminal behavior.
People who stalk may have had intimate relationships with their victims, or they may be casual acquaintances, co-workers or strangers. They can be men or women, but most are men stalking women. A stalker's goal is often to have or re-establish a relationship with the victim, but stalkers can also be seeking revenge or vindication for any perceived injustice. Regardless of the reason for stalking, most stalkers follow a pattern of increasingly intrusive or frightening behaviors.
Stalkers have many different ways to harass their victims. They usually begin with actions that are annoying or disturbing, but not illegal, such as:
- Seeking information about the victim from friends, employers and social media
- Making repeated but non-threatening phone calls, sending emails and leaving notes on the victim's car
- Approaching the victim to request dates, meetings, etc.
- Sending unwanted gifts, flowers or cards to the victim
- Observing the victim secretly, following or showing up "by chance" wherever he or she goes
- Waiting outside the victim's home, place of employment or next to his or her parked car
When these efforts fail to achieve the desired results, about 50 percent of stalkers will escalate to actions intended to harass or terrorize the victim. For example, they may:
- Vandalize or destroy the victim's property or leave sinister warnings such as a dead animal
- Break into the victim's home or car and deliberately leave evidence of the stalker's presence
- Track the victim's movements and actions using hidden cameras or global positioning systems
- Make direct or implied threats to harm the victim, his or her family or pets
- Spread ugly rumors about the victim or make false reports to authorities
In about 25 percent of cases, stalking escalates to physical assault of the victim, rape or abduction and, in 2 percent, murder.
Characteristics of stalkers
Stalkers often have personality traits that make it difficult for them to take "no" for an answer. They may need to have control over another person and be unable to accept that person's real or perceived rejection of them. They may have difficulty telling the difference between reality and their fantasies. Or they blame others for their problems and see themselves as victims. The most dangerous stalkers can have an unreasonable sense of entitlement, be highly manipulative and quickly become enraged or violent when frustrated. What all stalkers have in common is an obsession with their victims that can grow to the point of being impossible to deal with through conventional ways of communicating.
Dealing with a stalker
The best chance of stopping a potential stalker comes at the first feelings of uneasiness about a person's behavior. You may be able to avoid being stalked if you immediately communicate your boundaries about the type of relationship you are willing to have. This can be very difficult for those who worry about hurting someone's feelings or who hesitate to make assumptions based on a gut feeling. But it's important to trust your instincts and not allow yourself to feel responsible for another person's inappropriate behavior. Taking a "wait and see" approach rather than establishing firm limits early on may require you to take more aggressive action after the stalker's obsession has intensified.
When it becomes clear that stalking behavior is continuing despite efforts to curtail or cease contact with the person, stalking experts recommend these specific actions:
- Issue a no-contact statement. A written no-contact statement delivered in person or by mail is evidence, should you need it, that you have directly instructed the stalker to leave you alone. A no-contact statement must be clear and firm, not vague or apologetic. Here's an example: "I am not interested in having a relationship with you. If you continue to call, stop by or try to contact me in any way, I will consider it criminal harassment, and I will take legal action against you."
- Have absolutely no further contact with the stalker. Once you have issued the no-contact statement, it is essential that you adhere to it. If you give in even once by responding to an attempt to engage you, it will give the stalker a reason to persist. Should it become necessary to communicate with the stalker, do so only through a third party.
- Develop a safety plan. Safety precautions you might consider include changing daily routines, taking action to make it more difficult to contact you or get information about you, arranging for an alternate place to stay or investing in additional security features for your home.
- Document everything. It's important to record the details of every instance of stalking behavior and keep all evidence, especially after issuing the no-contact statement. Even if you're not ready to contact the police, these records will help you build a stronger case later on. You can download the form, "Stalking Incident and Behavior Log" from the National Center for Victims of Crime's Stalking Resource Center.
- Tell everyone you see regularly that you are being stalked. Your friends, family and co-workers need to know how to identify the stalker. Ask them to inform you immediately if the stalker has been seen in the area or tried to get information about you, and document it. They also need to know how to support your safety plans.
Reaching out for help
A victim advocate can help you understand your rights as a victim, provide information about stalking laws in your area and help you weigh options for taking legal action. Legal action could include a military protective order if the stalker is a service member, a civilian restraining order or a formal complaint filed with law enforcement. A victim advocate can also help you with safety planning and accompany you to legal proceedings. You can find a victim advocate at your installation by using the locator at MilitaryINSTALLATIONS or by calling your installation family support center. If you don't have access to installation services, contact a crisis hotline, domestic violence or rape crisis program in your area and ask to speak to a victim advocate.
You may also need to reach out for help in coping with the emotional toll that stalking can take on its victims. A Military OneSource consultant (800-342-9647) can connect you with confidential non-medical counseling services and help you find other victim resources in your area.