CLEANING her daughter’s bedroom, Briony* froze as she dusted the top of the wardrobe.
There sat a mobile phone she’d never seen before.
Her heart pounding, she picked it up and looked at the screen. It read: “recording”.
“I felt physically sick. I was sure it had been left there by my partner Rob*, who I already suspected of spying on me.
“But I didn’t know how to prove it or make anyone believe me,” she says.
As shocking as Briony’s story sounds, it is not an isolated one.
READ MORE ON REAL LIFE
I was a mum at 14, had an abortion at 16 but got pregnant again weeks later
I was C-section shamed for having ‘unnatural birth’ & taking the ‘easy’ way out
According to domestic violence charity Refuge, one in three women have now experienced what experts are calling “tech abuse”.
Aside from recordings, it can occur in many other ways – from unwanted contact through phones and social media, to more insidious methods of control via home smart devices.
One in six women who experience tech abuse do so at the hands of a partner or ex.
Cases reported to Refuge have included subtly controlling the heating in a victim’s home via a smartphone to increase her gas bills, as well as camera doorbells tracking their movements.
Most read in Fabulous
CATCH & RELEASE
People are just discovering what the catch is for on their washing machines
CATCH & RELEASE
I spilt paint on my brand new carpet, an easy hack helped me get it out
I went to get my hair done by a blonde specialist…It was a disaster
We were charged almost £40 for TWO vodka lemonades – It feels like robbery
The charity adds that around 66% of women don’t know which devices in their home could be misused in this way.
“We use technology in every aspect of our lives, so it’s hardly surprising that perpetrators are finding more opportunities to control and attack their victims,” says Refuge’s CEO Ruth Davison.
“Cases are fast-growing and increasingly complex, since this form of abuse is often ‘invisible’ and carried out remotely.”
Between April 2020 and May 2021, there was a 97% increase in tech abuse cases reported to Refuge, compared to the three months preceding lockdown in March 2020.
This number then jumped to 118% for July to November 2021.
For Briony, finding the phone wasn’t the first time she’d suspected she was being watched or listened to by her other half.
A few weeks earlier, in November 2016, while breastfeeding her daughter, she’d heard a buzzing sound, followed by a low vibration, coming from behind her sofa.
“I’d been hearing unusual noises in the flat for a while. I kept thinking my phone was ringing or somebody had texted me, but every time I’d check, I had no new notifications,” says Briony, who’s in her 30s.
he felt “frozen”, she recalls, after hearing it so loudly this time, certain there was some kind of device present.
“I was terrified to look or put my hand down the sofa – I didn’t want to know what I’d find,” she explains.
Around this time, Briony’s boyfriend Rob, who she’d been dating since 2013 and had welcomed a daughter with in 2015, but lived apart from, began saying things that unnerved her.
“He kept dropping things into conversation like: ‘Did you have a nice chat with your nan earlier?’ and: ‘How was your friend’s break-up?’
'HE'D ALWAYS BEEN CONTROLLING'
"I couldn’t work out how on earth he knew what I’d been talking about, since we didn’t live together. Looking back, perhaps the buzzing from the sofa explained it,” she says.
“When I mentioned it to Rob, he told me I sounded crazy and sleep-deprived.
"But right afterwards, he drove round and demanded I leave the room while he played hide-and-seek with our daughter.
Sure enough, the buzzing never happened again. Weeks later, I found the mobile phone recording in my baby’s room and my fear was triggered all over again.”
Psychotherapist Lohani Noor from the Manchester Institute for Psychotherapy, says: “Tech abuse is used to control, intimidate, humiliate and manipulate victims, and it typically exists within a larger web of harm.
"It’s especially dangerous because technology allows easy access to all areas of that person’s life.
"It is insidious, leaving victims with the feeling that the walls have eyes and that they’re not safe within their own home.”
For Briony, these unnerving incidents followed months of abuse at the hands of her now-ex-partner.
“While Rob was charismatic, funny and adoring when we first met through friends in our early 20s, he’d always been controlling, saying things like: ‘You’re mine and nobody else’s,’ and asking me to prove where I was or who I was with constantly.
“I was flattered at the time, finding it romantic that he cared so much about me. Obviously, I feel very differently now,” says Briony.
After their daughter was born, things deteriorated quickly. Within weeks, Rob had enforced a curfew on Briony to monitor her movements, stopping her from seeing friends and family.
Next, he forced her to delete her social media accounts and share her bank statements with him, which he’d analyse for evidence of “excessive spending”.
'HE SOUNDED SO CONVINCING'
“If I disagreed with him or tried to leave, he’d threaten to kill me and my family or to throw acid in my face.
"He even forged documents that he claimed showed I’d taken drugs and said he’d take this fictional paperwork to social services,” says Briony.
“The rational part of my mind knew it wasn’t true, but the other part was petrified they’d believe him, as he sounded so convincing.”
Terrified to end things for fear of what Rob might do, it wasn’t until early 2019 when Briony finally found the strength to break up with him. But after that, the situation spiralled.
“Rob began turning up at my home unannounced. If I didn’t let him in, he’d stand outside the door for hours.
"When I told him I’d go to the police, he’d taunt: ‘Do you really think anyone will believe you?’”
In September 2019, Rob assaulted Briony and their daughter at her home. She called the police, hysterical with fear.
While Rob was arrested and admitted his actions, he wasn’t convicted due to a technicality.
Thankfully, Briony was able to get help from Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), and in November 2021, a judge ruled that Rob was an unfit parent, banning him from contacting her, and allowing only monthly video contact with their daughter.
However, Briony’s experience continues to haunt her.
“To this day, I still worry about my ex stalking me or spying on me,” she admits. “It’s something I’m very much aware of – there’s a level of paranoia that will always be with me.”
Amy Aldworth, 27, from London, understands all too well the devastating impact that tech abuse can have on a person, having experienced it at the hands of a Tinder date.
“John* and I started chatting on the dating app early in the Covid pandemic,” explains Amy, who had been single since 2017.
“He seemed funny and good-looking and had a respectable job working in a bank, so when the first lockdown ended in June 2020, we agreed to meet for a drink.”
Pharmacy assistant Amy’s first impressions of John were positive.
“He was well-dressed and generous, insisting on paying for drinks. We liked the same music and films. I definitely didn’t notice any red flags,” she says.
'I FELT LIKE I COULDN'T ESCAPE'
The pair spent the night together at Amy’s home and the next morning agreed to stay in touch and see one another again. But a week later, their daily messages took on a disturbing tone.
“He messaged me and my stomach flipped as I read it. It said: ‘When was your last STI test? I’ve got symptoms’.
Amy texted back, reassuring John she’d had an STI test a few months before, and had a clean bill of health.
But soon a flurry of furious texts arrived, with John claiming he was displaying “symptoms of HIV”, angrily accusing her of passing something on to him.
Despite Amy’s assurances, John kept messaging, calling her a “liar”, “disgusting” and a “bitch”. “I felt sick and couldn’t think straight,” she remembers.
Over the next few days, John’s ranting continued over text and WhatsApp, demanding Amy take another STI test as soon as possible.
Horrified, she stopped replying, in the hope that it would defuse the situation. But it only made John angrier.
“I remember checking my mobile phone at work and seeing 17 missed calls over a three-hour period,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t escape.”
'THE EXPERIENCE HAS CHANGED ME'
At her wit’s end, Amy begged her local sexual health clinic for an urgent appointment, and to her relief, a same-day rapid HIV test revealed negative results.
“I felt hugely relieved and sent John the results, praying that would be the end of it. But he demanded I send a photo of the needle mark on my arm to prove I’d been tested.
"By now I was broken – I wasn’t sleeping and couldn’t focus at work.”
Distraught, Amy tried blocking his number. “But I kept getting notifications, saying: ‘You’ve received a text from a blocked number,’ so I knew he was still messaging me,” she says.
“I was petrified he’d turn up at my house, since he knew where I lived.”
Amy even changed her number, but that didn’t stop him. “He started messaging me on Facebook and Instagram.
He sent them from dozens of fake accounts – each time I blocked one, another request or message popped up.
They said: ‘What the f**k have you spread, Amy? Tell me what the f**k it is right now!’ He threatened to have me arrested for giving him HIV.”
In July 2020, fearful for her safety, Amy contacted the police. By this point, her anxiety was through the roof, prompting her to visit her GP, too.
“They prescribed medication and put me in touch with Refuge’s tech abuse team,” she explains. “I was allocated a tech abuse advocate, who called me regularly, offering support. I honestly don’t know what I’d have done without them.”
That August, John was arrested, and in January 2021, pleaded guilty in court to two counts of harassment.
But while John is forbidden from contacting Amy under a stalking protection order, the effects still linger.
“The experience has changed me,” she says. “When I see friends speaking to guys on nights out, I get anxious, worried other men will turn out like John.
"I don’t go on dating apps any more, and every time I get a text or DM from an unknown name or number, I go into panic mode.”
Cases like Amy and Briony’s show how easily tech can be used against us, warns Ruth Davison.
Read More on The Sun
Tim Westwood ‘victims reveal they felt “dirty” after he performed sex acts’
Urgent WhatsApp warning as all 2BILLION users told to delete text immediately
“Devices we take for granted – like smartphones, doorbells and TVs – can all be used to harm women, and because it’s subtle and often alongside other forms of abuse, it’s common for victims to doubt themselves,” she says.
“If something doesn’t feel right, it’s likely it isn’t. But instead of being forced offline or to abandon devices – which isolates victims further – we must ensure that women are empowered to use tech safely and confidently, understanding which home devices could make them vulnerable (our Home Tech Tool at Refugetechsafety.org explains this). In 2022, their lives depend on it.”
For help and support, call Refuge’s 24hr helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit Nationaldahelpline.org.uk. *Names have been changed.
Source: Read Full Article