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Know the dangers of stalking

Editor's note: The following information was provided by Someplace Safe, which serves Douglas County. January is National Stalking Awareness Month and victim advocates across the country are using this month as an opportunity to educate the publi...

Editor's note: The following information was provided by Someplace Safe, which serves Douglas County.

January is National Stalking Awareness Month and victim advocates across the country are using this month as an opportunity to educate the public about the pervasive crime that affects nearly 1.4 million Americans a year.

Most people associate stalking with celebrities - Madonna, Sheryl Crow or Britney Spears. Yet celebrity stalking cases, though dangerous and serious, are relatively rare. More commonly, victims are ordinary people pursued by someone they know. Victims may not understand that stalking is criminal. And what they don't know about stalking may jeopardize their lives.

Stalking is a crime. All 50 states have passed laws that make it illegal to engage in stalking - usually defined as a course of conduct directed at a specific person to cause "a reasonable person" (in legal terms) to feel fear. Stalking behavior can range from annoying to intrusive and terrifying and dangerous. Stalking can escalate to violence and end in murder. Three out of four women killed by their intimate partners were stalked by that person before they were killed.

Stalking is shockingly common. More than one million women and 370,000 men are stalked every year in the United States. About one in 12 women and one in 45 men are stalked sometime in their lifetimes.

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Stalking can dominate and devastate victims' lives. Victims may feel unsafe and vulnerable, in constant fear of what their stalker might do. They may have trouble working, eating or sleeping; some victims suffer disturbing flashbacks and nightmares. Victims may also feel isolated and frustrated because people do not understand why they are so afraid. They are caught - for two years, average - in a threatening trap set by their stalkers.

Stalkers are not easy to identify. They come from virtually every walk of life and every socioeconomic background. They have no single psychological profile, and the differences among stalkers make it hard to predict their behavior and find effective strategies to deter them. The vast majority are obsessed with their victims, intent on controlling them and determined to use any means to keep their victims in their power.

Particularly threatening to victims is stalkers' increasing use of high-tech devices to stalk. In recent years, many stalkers have used computer and global positioning systems (GPS), miniature video cameras, listening devices, and "spyware" (secretly installed software that records every keystroke) to track their victims and secretly invade their lives. Such devices allow stalkers to control their victims and successfully evade law enforcement.

Fighting back

To defeat stalkers, both victims and communities must take stalking seriously. Victims should trust their instincts and understand that stalkers are unpredictable. Victims in immediate danger should call 911. They can also receive support from a crisis hotline, a victim services agency or a domestic violence/rape crisis program. These agencies can help a victim devise a safety plan, learn about local laws, find services, and take additional steps, such as seeking a restraining order.

Victims should report the stalking to law enforcement and carefully document evidence by writing down the times, dates and places they were stalked. They should keep e-mails, phone messages, letters, notes and anything sent by the stalker. Victims should also alert friends, family members, roommates and co-workers about the stalking and enlist their support and help.

Victims need to know that help is available. They can call Someplace Safe, serving Douglas County, at (320) 762-1995 or the National Center for Victims of Crime Helpline at 1-800-FYI-CALL for help with stalking or any other crime.

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