My abusive ex-boyfriend secretly stalked me for months with hidden phone-tracking app

My abusive ex-boyfriend secretly stalked me for months with hidden phone-tracking app

A woman says she was left “terrified” by her abusive ex-boyfriend after he stalked her for months using a secretly downloaded tracking device on her mobile phone.

Lisa* said her former partner downloaded a tracking app on her phone without her knowledge in 2019 when they were still together.

She said he used the software, which was completely hidden from the owner of the phone, to follow her movements for a year, when it was discovered by police some seven months after they had broken up and she had been taken to hospital after being attacked.

Even after the discovery, Lisa said, neither the technology company that created the app nor the police were able to remove it from her phone.

“It felt hopeless,” she told The Independent. “It’s not something you can really escape. Unless you know what to look for on your phone, you won’t know that you’re being watched.

“It’s terrifying to then be told that he’s got a copy of everything, [and] he knows where you are constantly … It was a really big invasion of my privacy and safety.”

GPS trackers have become popular in recent years, including the high-profile Apple AirTag – a small and lightweight device that was released in 2021. They were designed to keep track of items and help parents with their children’s safety. However, the products are increasingly becoming the tool of choice for abusers.

Over the last five years, the number of coercive control and stalking cases in which a GPS tracker was used has shot up by 317 per cent, according to data obtained through freedom of information requests submitted by ITV News in April. The broadcaster received responses from 14 of the UK’s police forces, and found that the number of GPS stalking cases increased from 52 in 2018 to 217 in 2023, rising every year.

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GPS trackers have become popular in recent years, including the high-profile Apple AirTag, a small and lightweight device that was released in 2021 (Getty)

Lisa said the app could not be removed from her device without permission from the person it was registered to – in her case, the perpetrator.

She said she later found out from the police that her ex-boyfriend had been using the app to access her exact location several times every day; he or his friends would then show up there and subject her to varying levels of abuse.

“I was so scared that I was going to be killed, with the amount of times that he had threatened me,” she said.

After she had reported multiple incidents to the police, Lisa said, officers finally suggested it was possible that a tracking device was being used to stalk her. This was when they were speaking to her in hospital after she had been severely assaulted.

Lisa said her ex-boyfriend was later convicted and received a prison sentence. However, he still had access to phones in jail, she said, adding that neither the police nor the tech company were able to remove the GPS tracker from her phone. In the end, she said, she was forced to get a friend to hack her phone and remove it. “You feel so alone,” she said.

Emma Pickering, head of technology-facilitated abuse and economic empowerment at Refuge – a charity that supports victims of domestic violence – urged greater understanding among police about this type of abuse, adding that there is a commonly held misconception that remote stalking is less of a threat.

She said: “We have seen an increase in referrals from the National Domestic Abuse Helpline and across our services, with reports of tracking and location monitoring, as this form of abuse becomes easier with numerous apps offering monitoring software. They can also be hard to detect, hidden on phones, with survivors often feeling they are being tracked but not knowing how.”

Emma Lingley-Clark, CEO of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, warned that companies are developing products without conducting robust risk assessments about how they might be used by perpetrators.

Lisa said the blame for the abuse she faced lies with her ex-boyfriend, but she is now calling for tech companies to implement stronger safeguarding measures. She said she does not feel protected from being stalked via a tracking device again.

“It would have been harder for him to find me if an app had not been available, or if [the company had] put certain precautions in place,” she said. “You never really think about how it can be used as a tool by abusers – it’s terrifying how easily the apps can be manipulated.”

Deputy Chief Constable Paul Mills, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for stalking and harassment, said: “It’s important that within policing, and as a society, we recognise the patterns of stalking and acknowledge the risk that it poses to victims.

“With the continued growth in technology, the potential for devices to be inappropriately used by stalkers to target and track their victims is increasingly recognised in some stalking cases. The police service continues to work with technology providers to encourage them to improve security.”

*Lisa’s name has been changed to protect her identity

Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is available 24/7. Call 0808 2000 247 for free, confidential, specialist support. Refuge’s Tech Safety Summit 2024: Leading the Change Against Technology-Facilitated Abuse takes place on 24 and 25 September.