After many years spent working in family violence, Lesley Harrison thought she was beyond being shocked or surprised. But the story of "Mr Ten Cents" did it.
For weeks, a man who was banned by the courts from seeing his former partner or contacting her by email, phone or text, would make multiple online deposits into her bank account of just 10¢ each. In the few characters allowed in the description field for each deposit, he would pour as much hate and abuse as he could. When the woman checked her bank statements, she got to read line after line of vile, crude insults.
While the bank deposit scam was as creative as it was cruel, Harrison daily sees examples of abusers using technology – following victims through their fitness bracelets, hiding webcams in children's toys, and enabling location trackers in phones and tablets.
"You see this in crime shows on TV, James Bond style, but you realise there are tech-savvy perpetrators out there who are doing this every day."
Harrison trains those working in the front line of family violence in the many and varied ways perpetrators are using technology. Despite all their experience in the field, there is one statistic that she says shocks most of the doctors, lawyers, social workers, case managers and others at her workshops. "Today, technology is involved in 98 per cent of domestic violence – most of them just don't know that."
The national training program, run by the Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner and funded as part of the Turnbull government's $10 million boost to tackling family violence, began in mid-2016. Harrison says in that time she has collected hundreds of case studies.
Recent stories shared at the workshops include tracking devices placed in cars, strollers and walking sticks, controlling family members through electronic "gifts" that have spyware or location apps for tracking, and using spyware to listen in on calls and read emails.
One woman was contacted by her partner every time she used her bank cards to pay for items in stores. He would often call to ridicule and criticise her while she was still in the store, sometimes shouting so that other customers could clearly hear the abuse.
Despite the inventive variety of the abuse, almost all of it falls into four main categories: harassment, such as bombarding with texts or calls; stalking, by hacking into email accounts or social media, for example; impersonating, such as creating false accounts; and threats or punishment, such as revenge porn.
Harrison says anyone trying to help someone – or themselves – at risk of abuse should first do a quick survey of how safely they use their devices.
"Things like location devices, privacy settings, leaving things open on your phone. [People] know about it but they may not be doing anything [about it]."
The advice is rarely, if ever, to tell victims to stop using technology or social media. Withdrawing from technology can further isolate women, rarely stops the abuser, and may even alert violent partners to plans to leave, triggering an escalation in the abuse.
Practical advice includes turning off the location tracker on your phone, hiding your browsing history and finding a safer device to use at a public library, for example. For the less tech-savvy, there is how-to advice on these among 50 tips on the commission's website, as well as links to sites with clear information on how to manage privacy and safety settings on specific devices.
While it may be instinctive to hit the delete button, victims of abuse are advised to collect evidence when it is safe to do so, including taking screenshots, keeping voicemails and printing out abusive posts or emails. Evidence can be left with a trusted friend or relative, well out of reach of the abuser.
The commissioner's office was recently contacted by a woman worried about her granddaughter's boyfriend after seeing mean comments he was putting on Facebook attacking the girl about her weight and criticising her to her friends. She noticed her granddaughter becoming stressed and withdrawn, and was worried the boyfriend was becoming increasingly controlling.
The grandmother played an important role in helping keep her granddaughter safe: getting her advice about turning off location trackers, keeping evidence of the aggressive posts, and having a second mobile phone at her house for her granddaughter to use.
The office also gives advice and support for revenge-porn victims – those who have intimate videos or images posted online without their consent. It has an online reporting tool for those targeted, and works with the industry to get images taken down.
Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner's executive director, Andree Wright, says it's wrong to assume that once intimate images go up online there is little victims can do. The office has succeeded in getting images taken down quickly, and recently provided advice to the government over civil penalties – which are being drafted – to penalise those responsible for revenge porn.
Despite the fast-paced advances in technology, Harrison says, the most common type of technology-facilitated abuse is overwhelmingly harassment – floods of horrible emails or relentless texting. One counsellor described a woman getting more than 30 messages and missed calls during their 60-minute counselling session. A GP talked about a woman receiving dozens of messages from a former partner every day and described seeing her flinch every time her phone buzzed to indicate a message.
Those working in family violence says this near-constant messaging has the effect of making the victims feel that nowhere is safe or that they can never escape the abuser.
But Harrison says there are solutions.
"Ten years ago this just wasn't happening because the technology wasn't there. It's here now and it's very common, but the important thing is we can deal with it, we can support these women."
Tips for everyone to prevent tech abuse
- Use different screen names and user names for different platforms and different parts of your life.
- Put passwords/passcodes on all devices.
- In your device's settings, disable Bluetooth, location-based services and GPS.
- Make sure your settings on social media are private and know how to get help on these sites to stay secure.
- Cover or disable cameras.
- Install and run anti-malware and security software.
- Learn how to block your number.
- Limit what and how much you post about yourself online.
- Delete your browsing history regularly or use private browsing.
- Always log off or sign out of social media, billing and email accounts.
If you are being abused or harassed
- Look for anything unusual and how it occurs, for example in a particular place, after using a certain device.
- Get a new email address in a generic name.
- Use a new email address to sign up to any accounts so bills won't reach your abuser.
- Get a new device with a new carrier where you are the only account holder.
- Don't reuse SIM cards, but re-enter all data on any new devices.
- Use devices at community houses, libraries and women's services.
- Use a friend's or family member's device that the abuser will not check.
- Talk to friends and family and remind them not to tag you, check you in or post about you online.
- Make sure others can't get information about your movements, e.g. from your Myki or Oyster account, your fitness/activity bracelet or your fitness apps.
- Have your car checked for tracking devices.
- Have any technology gifts for you or your children checked.
- Provide copies of court orders to every government agency you use, myGov, banks, schools, childcare, kindergartens and preschools, sporting clubs and everywhere your child attends, and consider becoming a silent elector.
- Contact agencies (such as doctors and hospitals) that may have your abuser listed as "next of kin".
Source: Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner and WESNET
If you need help: 1800 Respect (1800 737 732)