Domestic online abuse victim speaks out on 'online terror campaign'

The new Women's Refuge campaign hopes to help women like Katie (Supplied)
The new Women's Refuge campaign hopes to help women like Katie (Supplied)

An Auckland woman has spoken out about the "online terror campaign" wrought on her by a bitter ex, in the hopes it will help other women in the same position.

Katie* first met her now ex-boyfriend in 2013, starting a volatile "on-again, off-again" relationship later that year.

She describes him as "manipulative and controlling", and herself as "very vulnerable".

"During the relationship, I suspected he was reading my email. He knew things I don't recall telling him. 

"He told me I was paranoid and I didn't think that much of it."

Eventually she'd had enough of his control and manipulation, and found the strength to leave. But she wasn't prepared for the online terror campaign she was about to face.

"I describe it as personal terrorism," Katie told Newshub.

It was the night she told him to come collect his stuff that she first received a Facebook friend request from herself.

"He had secretly taken photos of me, and used them along with my address, phone number, my workplace."

She applied to have the Facebook page removed, but says "that was only the start".

Her ex-boyfriend then used a fake email address of Katie's to send an "incredibly defamatory, sexually charged poem", to Katie's current and past employers.

He also sent it to Katie herself, with the message "you'll never be left alone wh**e".

She reported it to police, who took a statement, and a family violence support group got in touch. Katie, thinking she had a "thick skin" and hoping he would lose interest, decided not to get a protection order issued.

"It just kept coming. He always seemed to know where I was" she said.

iPhone hacked

This is because he hacked her iPhone, following her messages and tracking her through her enabled location services.

"I spent most of this time virtually vomiting with fear" Katie says. 

"There was arson at my house, but there was never enough evidence to prove it was him. But afterwards he sent me a gift card for the song 'Burning Down the House' on iTunes with a message telling me I was going to hell."

Katie eventually got a protection order, which would stop her ex-boyfriend from physically harming her. 

But the digital abuse kept coming. One of his fake Facebook profiles was under the pseudonym 'Nick Dunn',  the fictional husband in Gone Girl framed for abuse and murder by his wife.

"I received an email from him once a week for the next 10-12 weeks. I couldn't block it because I didn't know where it was coming from. He kept creating new ones."

Eventually police obtained a search warrant and seized his devices. 

The electronic abuse occurred predominantly between November 2014 and May 2015. The Harmful Digital Communications Act, established to charge offenders publishing threatening or offensive material online, did not come into effect until 3 July 2015.

Katie's ex-boyfriend was sentenced for breaching a protection order in March 2016. He received four months' home detention with electronic monitoring and 12 months' supervision.

Katie says she still lives in fear every day.

"With online stuff, you don't know what it's going to be or when it's going come." 

With experiences like Katie's becoming more common, Women's Refuge has launched a new initiative to help women keep their online presence safe.

They've partnered with Saatchi & Saatchi and some of New Zealand's leading organisations to create The Shielded Site: An expandable iFrame that can sit on any host website and contains vital information a victim can use to ask for help, keep themselves safe, or plan for the future. 

Isobel Kerr-Newell, Communications Director for Saatchi & Saatchi said that "while technology can be a tool for victims of domestic violence to ask for help, in an increasingly digitally connected society, technology has also extended the reach of abusers".

Women's Refuge said it is increasingly seeing abusers use a phone's GPS location to track their victims, obtain their victim's email or banking passwords, even checking their web browser history to monitor them.

The Shielded Site never appears in a user's browser history, simply appearing as a tab on sites from such organizations as ASB Bank, The Warehouse, Sorted and Z Energy .

Domestic online abuse victim speaks out on 'online terror campaign'

How the shielded site will look on the user's device (Supplied)

ASB general manager Digital Fiona Colgan says ASB is proud to support the Shielded Site initiative with the tab on its website, and to provide site hosting enabling other companies to join.

"This is a positive initiative and we are delighted to get behind it. If we can help even one woman to reach out in a safe way to get support, it's been a success."

Dr Ang Jury, CEO of Women's Refuge says, "On average, just over 500 people a month look for advice and help through our website. The most dangerous time in a relationship is when a victim is planning on leaving, or immediately after they've left; so being able to assist people to do this discretely and safely will mean more people can access help and information."

Katie believes initiatives such as the Shielded Site are crucial for women suffering from abuse.

"When you have someone monitoring you, being able to hide your movements are absolutely essential for your physical safety."

Businesses and organisations wanting to add the tab to their site should visit www.shielded.co.nz.

*Names have been changed.

Newshub.

               

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