Online safety tips for domestic abuse survivors

It’s tricky in the best of times to keep track of every online account we’ve opened, each password we’ve reused or how many devices we’ve granted access to our information. These bits of routine maintenance take on a new urgency for people who are dealing with intimate partner violence.

Access to accounts and devices can be a way of stalking or hurting someone even after a separation. Taking back control of our digital lives takes time and an understanding of technology, putting another burden on the person who is already dealing with abuse. It can be overwhelming. So this week, we’re going to cover some of the basics for a reader dealing with this common situation.

Q: My ex-husband has all my credentials and is stalking me. How do I set up a new phone and laptop system?

Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that each person’s situation is different and you can call an expert for detailed advice for your situation. Start with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which can help with advice and resources. These steps are for people who no longer live with their abuser. In those situations, the technology piece is different because it may still be easier for someone else to access your devices directly.

For this reader, a core part of the problem is her log-ins. As an Android user, her Google account might still be linked with an older device that her ex has in his possession. He also knows all of her most sensitive information, including her Social Security number. Here is where she, and anyone in a similar situation, can start.

Establish a safety plan: Before the basics like changing a password or getting a new phone number, consider what repercussions there might be and how best to handle them. “There are two risks that come with taking action. One of those is the risk of escalation. If he suddenly finds he doesn’t have access to her anymore, is he going to come in person? Find other ways to monitor here?” said Toby Shulruff, a technology safety project manager at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She recommends having a safety plan, which might include important phone numbers and safe locations.

Document everything: Another risk of taking action is that you could lose evidence of wrongdoing. If you’re in a position where showing proof that you’re being stalked or monitored could be important, like for getting a restraining order, take screenshots of anything relevant like messages or proof they were accessing your accounts. If you’re documenting communications like text messages, be sure the exact date shows, said Hannah Meropol, an attorney whose clients include victims of harassment.

List your accounts: Now is the time to make a list of all your devices and accounts. This will include your cell carrier, email account, online banking credentials, any social media sites and less obvious things like Netflix. Write down any devices you use as well as any you think may be in the possession of the other person. You’ll want to pay special attention to anything that has shared access, like family plans for phones, Shulruff said. If you still use any shared services like a streaming account or Amazon, you’ll want to leave them and start your own or remove the other person’s access if it’s your account.

The ultimate guide to secure passwords for online accounts

Update passwords: Change all your passwords, even the ones for accounts you don’t think are risky. Each one will need to be completely different from anything used before, not just a word with the number changed at the end, and nothing guessable like a pet name or your birthday. There is no way around this step, but there are some things you can do to make it easier.

First, because you’re more concerned about a regular human than a cyberattack, you can choose phrase passwords. Second, if you have the bandwidth, we recommend using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password. These applications keep track of all those passwords for you, can generate new ones, and alert you when any are weak. If that sounds overwhelming, you can keep a list in a notebook stored in a safe place.

Turn on extra layers: Multifactor authentication is available on most services in their security settings, and it means you’ll use a code or extra step in addition to a password. If an ex has your password, they wouldn’t be able to use it on their own to access accounts. You often need to do this extra step only once on a new device. If you already have this setting turned on, make sure the phone number is your current one.

Edit backup contacts: Many online accounts have an option to add backup contacts. These were intended as a safety feature, but in cases of intimate partner violence, they can be the opposite. Go back through your list and check account information settings to make sure your partner, or a shared email or phone number, isn’t your alternative. If you’ve ever set up legacy contacts, update those right away as well.

Check social networks: Gathering information about you doesn’t always take accessing your accounts directly. Shared friends can screenshot or copy and paste your posts and pass them on, and public accounts can be viewed by anyone. Check your friend lists, weed out anyone you don’t trust, and make accounts private. If you share photos or updates, don’t include location information.

Our guide to every privacy setting you should change now

Cut off other access: Most new phones and computers are set up to back up data and photos to the cloud, sync to other devices or use location services so you can find them if lost. These features can all be used to track you if someone else still has access, even if it’s just one of your old phones. This might be part of what is happening with our reader.

You’ll want to save these connections and start fresh. On your phone and computer, check any location services for lost devices. Make sure you’re the only person listed as having access, and disconnect any old or unknown devices. On many apps, like Google and Facebook, you can see what other apps or devices have been given access in the past and revoke that access. You can sometimes see what devices or locations accessed your accounts and when. Take screenshots of anything suspicious.

If you use any cloud accounts for storage, like Dropbox or Google Photos, go in and see what devices they are synced with. Remove anything that isn’t yours and in your home. On Google Photos, make sure you don’t have partner sharing still on. Stalkerware, or applications secretly installed to track people, is a less common form of digital stalking, according to Shulruff. But if you’re worried about stalkerware, you can take your device to a computer store and have an expert check it out.

Use the last resort: All of these steps are meant to let the person keep an existing contact information, like an email and phone number, as well as hold on to social media and messaging accounts. Changing them is a huge inconvenience that could cut them off from people in their lives. “Asking her to close off from people she wants to be connected to can be a lot like the isolation a lot of abusers want,” Shulruff said.

However, if the threats are serious enough, and if the other steps aren’t effective at blocking the person out of your digital life, big changes are an option. If you get a new email address, you’ll need to go through and change it on existing accounts or, in some cases, close them and open new ones. Use that address to create a new Google or Apple account for logging into your phone. Keep that old email account open, at least for a while, to access any accounts you may have forgotten to update.

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