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How to identify tech abuse

Technology-facilitated abuse – or tech abuse – can be difficult to recognise as people often don’t realise it’s a form of abuse and unlawful. 

If you are unsure whether you’re at risk of or experiencing tech abuse, learn more about the warning signs and get support.

On this page:

Types of online abuse

In the context of domestic and family violence, online abuse covers a range of behaviours an abusive person can use to control, frighten or humiliate their partner, ex-partner or family using technology. 

eSafety can help remove the worst types of harmful communications, if they are to or about a person living in Australia. 

Adult cyber abuse

Adult cyber abuse involves severely abusive online communication to or about an adult which is menacing, harassing or offensive and intended to cause them serious harm. Read more about adult cyber abuse.

Image-based abuse

In the context of domestic and family violence, image-based abuse occurs when a partner or ex-partner shares — or threatens to share — intimate, nude or sexual images without the consent of those pictured. Read more about image-based abuse

Cyberstalking

In the context of domestic and family violence, cyberstalking is the use of technology to stalk or repeatedly harass a partner, ex-partner or family member. It is often accompanied by offline stalking. 

Cyberbstalking may include: 

  • false accusations
  • abusive comments
  • attempts to smear your reputation
  • threats of physical or sexual violence or repeated unwanted sexual requests. 

Cyberstalking may also include monitoring, identity theft and the gathering of information that may be used to threaten, embarrass or harass. 

Cyberstalking behaviour can look like:

  • Making unwanted contact by calling, emailing, texting, messaging, or sending offensive material.
  • Sharing  or threatening to share  photos, videos, personal information, or anything that is humiliating or embarrassing to you.
  • Posting humiliating, abusive or intimidating comments about you on social media.
  • Accessing your email or social media accounts to find your personal information, track your movements, read your emails and messages, or change your passwords to lock you out of your accounts.
  • Impersonating your online identity in order to harm your reputation or relationships including creating fake social media accounts.
  • Monitoring your movements using GPS technologies that are built into the operating systems of phones, tracking apps or spyware.
  • Physically tracking you, following you or watching you.

Your partner or ex-partner may use cyberstalking to abuse and control you  or to try and have continuing power over your life after you have separated. 
 

Common reactions to online abuse

Being abused, threatened and cyberstalked is traumatic and extremely stressful, and reactions can vary. It is normal to experience one or more of these reactions, such as feeling:

  • confused, anxious and powerless
  • angry, depressed and distrustful
  • isolated from family and friends
  • embarrassed, ashamed or guilty
  • worthless
  • that you are watching your back all the time and are unable to have any peace

You may find it harder to:

  • remember things
  • get organised
  • manage caring responsibilities

You could also:

  • become super-focused and notice and remembering everything
  • be unable to ‘switch off’.
     

What are the warning signs?

The following warning signs indicate that you or your children may be at risk of tech abuse.

Your partner or ex-partner:

  • Seems to know what you are doing online when they normally would not have access to this information.
  • Seems to know where you or your children are or turns up unexpectedly where you are.
  • Knows information from your private conversations, messages or emails.
  • Has access to your phone or computer or requests passwords or pin codes. If your partner or ex-partner has access to your phone they could look at call logs, emails, texts, messages, browser histories or load spyware. 
  • Constantly checks on you through social media activity or text logs.
  • Wants to control when you can access your phone or computer or takes these devices away.
  • Sends frequent and unwanted texts or messages or makes calls that are abusive or silent.
  • Posts defamatory comments, or things that are designed to humiliate or ridicule you or spreads malicious rumours on social media.
  • Constantly posts or sends messages that are harassing, threatening or demanding, such as ‘what are you doing?’, ‘who are you with?’, ‘where are you?’
  • Starts contacting your friends or family to check up on you or tell damaging stories about you.
  • Pressures you to send intimate pictures to them — shares or threatens to share intimate images of you without your consent.
  • Controls your finances or restricts access to your bank cards and online accounts.
  • Has set up a new camera or security system that seems unnecessary.

Other warning signs might include noticing unusual activity on your devices, such as:

  • Have your passwords stopped working or has access to any of your online accounts suddenly been restricted? 
  • Have you unexpectedly been given a computer or phone or received offers to fix your devices? 
  • Have your children been given new electronic gifts that your ex-partner seems insistent on them using and taking with them when they return to your care? Sometimes a phone with location tracking is given to a child, when there is a separation. 
  • Are you receiving abusive emails, messages or texts from strangers or anonymous senders?
  • Have fake messages or texts been sent from your social media accounts or phone?
  • Have you found a fake social media account in your name?
  • Have you found evidence of unusual activity in your email account, such as emails that have been read, marked unread, sent or deleted from your account, but not by you?
  • Has your computer, phone or tablet started running very slowly or not working properly? Does it take too long to turn off or is the battery running down more quickly than usual? This could be caused by additional processes, such as malware and spyware, running in the background.
  • Have you found unknown financial transactions in your online accounts?
  • Are the lights, locks, thermostat, air-conditioning, fridge, television, music system, or internet in your home turning off or on or changing unexpectedly? If you live in a connected home, your ex-partner may still have access to these devices and use them to ‘gaslight’ you. Gaslighting is a tactic that abusers use in order to gain control over their target by making them question their sense of reality.

 

Connect with support

If any of the above warning signs are true for you:

  • read what you can do to be safer online 
  • learn more and connect with support for tech abuse.

If you are living with the cyberstalker, for your own safety, use a public phone or a friend’s mobile to contact a support service like 1800RESPECT as soon as it is safe for you to do so. They can help you with safety planning. A safety plan can help you to increase your personal safety.

Remember, if an abusive person learns that you are seeking resources and information, it is possible that their abusive behaviour may get worse. This is why a safety plan is necessary.

If you do not live with the cyberstalker or have separated, limit contact with them as much as possible. This may be difficult if you are sharing custody of children. If possible, give the cyberstalker a single clear message at the earliest possible stage that their attention is unwelcome and that you do not want any unsolicited contact from them. 

If they continue to contact you or post abusive material, instead of responding to their posts, messages, texts or calls, collect them as evidence. 

Stalking is a crime in all states and territories in Australia. If you think your partner or ex-partner is cyberstalking you, contact your local police — they can help you. Never let cyberstalking go on for too long — if you feel unsafe report the abuse to the police now.

The help and support section contains useful tips on how to get help from the police. You may also be able to take out a protection order against the abusive person.
 

What can you do to protect yourself?

Follow these tips for managing your online activities and staying safe:

Set strong passcodes and passwords to secure your online accounts and devices, change them frequently and do not share them with anyone. One of the most common ways that an abuser can gain access to your personal information is by accessing your online accounts using saved passwords, or by simply guessing your password.

Turn off location services on your phone and computer, and do not ‘check in’ through your social media accounts. For more information see our social media checklist.

If your partner or ex-partner set up your device or you share an account, such as an apple ID, they may be able to access information on your device remotely or track your location. It may be necessary to set up a new account and restore your device to factory settings. For more information see securing your accounts and devices.

Be aware of your privacy when posting online — avoid posting identifying information about your location, including in photos.

Use your social media accounts safely — block unknown or abusive people and use the highest level security and privacy settings on your accounts to make sure your posts are only seen by the people you choose. Information on privacy settings and online safety for individual social networks, apps and games is available in the eSafety Guide.

Double check which apps or programs are loaded on your devices and remove any that you did not put there yourself. Seek help from a tech expert if you cannot find or remove the unknown apps or programs. If necessary do a ‘factory reset’ to restore your devices back to their ‘as new’ condition — be sure to back up important data first, but be careful when restoring from a backup as this may also copy over any unknown apps or programs.

Be very careful about opening attachments in emails and messages. Read our advice about online scams and identity theft. Watch the ACMA’s video on protecting your computer from malware.

If any appliances, locks or connected systems in your home are not working in their usual way, consult a relevant technical expert. It may be necessary to reinstall or set up these systems.

Use a safer computer if you are not confident your computer is 100% clean, for example use a public library computer or a trusted friend’s phone or computer.

And, most importantly, trust your instincts. You are in the best position to know if things are not right, and to take control of your online experience.

Staying safe

If you are in Australia and feeling unsafe right now, call the police on Triple Zero (000) or contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). Remember your safety is important. If an abusive person learns that you are seeking resources and information, their abusive behaviour may get worse. Learn more and connect with support.