I-Team: Stalkers Hack to Harass Victims in Their Own Homes

Law enforcement officials say harassers are increasingly using technology to get at their victims — tracking their every move

What to Know

  • Domestic violence incidents — including murders — often begin with abusers stalking their victims
  • Law enforcement officials say harassers are increasingly using technology to get at their victims — tracking their every move
  • Smart home devices, even home security devices, can be weaponized to "cyberstalk," they say

Domestic violence incidents — including murders — often begin with abusers stalking their victims.

Law enforcement officials say harassers are increasingly using technology to get at their victims — tracking their every move. Smart home devices, even home security devices, can be weaponized to "cyberstalk," they say.

Ferial Nijem says she was abused by her ex for years. 

"My abuser was able to utilize our home technology to stalk and harass me even from thousands of miles away," she said. 

Nijem said her ex had access to the home’s smart home technology like security cameras, lighting and sound systems.

“You’re asleep in the middle of the night, and all of a sudden over the sound system comes this blaring music that startles you awake. That’s what would happen to me," she recalled.

Nijem said her ex was watching her come and go with the home security cameras. He would also send her text messages — threatening yet another sleepless night, she said.

"So every conversation, every step I took was monitored," she said. "You’re literally being stalked and harassed within the confines of your home."

At first, Nijem had no idea her ex still had access. When she finally had the courage to go to police, she says an officer eventually led her to a domestic violence counselor.

"I was forced into a shelter because of that situation and it was, you know, it was a decision that, it wasn’t an easy decision," she said.

As for changing her password, Nijem says she was afraid, and that getting out of a stalking situation is not easy.

"When you're in a... relationship that involves domestic violence, you don't have those powers.  You don't have that level of control. There are consequences to those type of actions," she said. 

And her story is not an isolated one. “Thomas” asked that we shield his identity because he still fears being cyberstalked by his ex.

“He took over my entire online life… he took over my email, my social media accounts even my online banking," he said.

Thomas says that after a bitter breakup — unbeknownst to him — he was being tracked.  He said his ex hacked his ride-sharing apps and often showed up at the same place he went out to time and again. Knowing a person’s location is key for a stalker.

“I later discovered that he was tracking my Uber rides, my Lyft rides. He knew where I was going, where I was coming from.”

And then, the worst — he said a hacked text message blast to his family and friends outed him as a gay man for the first time.

“I was put in a real jam — because of my conservative Christian upbringing my family had no idea. The mental abuse turned into the physical abuse. I was stressed out, I was tired, I was constantly anxious and you could see it.”

Experts said cyberstalking is on the rise. At Safe Horizons, a leading victim assistance organization, counselors said cyberstalking often leads to domestic violence.

"It’s more likely that a person who is stalked by an intimate partner is going to lead to physical violence and even lethality,” said Maureen Curtis who is vice president of criminal justice programs at Safe Horizon.

According to a January 2019 report by the New York City Mayor’s office, from 2013 to 2018, the NYPD made 3,507 stalking arrests. Sixty-four percent of those cases included domestic violence.

“When they look at homicides, they often see stalking and strangulation previously in that relationship,” Curtis said.

The head of the FBI Cyber Division in New York said the more devices like phones or homes systems, the more opportunity for a bad actor to take advantage.

"Anything that can be accessed via the internet for the most part is capable of being compromised,” Agent Ari Mahairas said.

Mahairas said with 5G’s faster processing speeds coming, many more devices —and potential vulnerabilities — lie ahead

"Each one of those devices represents a door or a window that can be opened if not locked securely.... In 2022, they’re estimating 30,000,000,000 devices that are connected.  That’s your smart refrigerator, your fitness band, wireless via autonomous vehicles, drones,” Mahairas said.

Mahairas says manufacturers and consumers need to improve cybersecurity.

“If [a device] allows you to implement two-factor authentications, do that as well, so what we begin to do is start building layers of security which is quite important."

Nijem says that when smart home technology turns into a weapon, victims of cyberstalking may not make smart life decisions. For her, it took too long to seek help.

"Get the help to get yourself out of it and don't have shame in that. There is nothing shameful about going through something like this."

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