Stalking apps (also known as spyware and stalkerware) are apps or software that someone can download onto your phone to secretly track or monitor you. Once they’re installed, the apps can share detailed information about what you do on your phone — like phone conversations, text and email messages, photos, and account passwords — without your knowledge.
Some stalking apps can turn on your phone’s microphone and camera remotely so that the person can see and hear what’s happening around the phone, even when you’re not using it.
If an abuser has installed a stalking app, your phone will probably look the same. You won’t see a new icon, and anti-virus software may not detect it. But there may be signs that suggest a stalking app could have been installed:
- The abuser has had physical access to your phone
- The abuser knows a lot of very specific information about you, including your exact locations, the content of conversations you’ve had, what you’ve texted and to whom, and what you’ve searched for online
- The phone’s battery drains faster, without any difference in your phone usage
- There is an unexplained increase in your data use
- There are unexpected changes in your phone’s settings
If you think there’s a stalking app on your phone, here are some steps to consider:
- Think about your safety first. Many abusers use stalkerware as a way to monitor and control you. They may escalate their abuse if they suspect you’re cutting off access. So, before you remove spyware, talk with a domestic violence advocate about safety planning.
- Get help. Law enforcement and domestic violence advocates can help you identify tech misuse and create a safety plan. Stalkerware can be difficult to detect and may require help from law enforcement, if that’s an option you’re comfortable with. Law enforcement or advocates also can talk to you about preserving evidence of abuse before you make changes to your phone. If possible, contact them from a device different from the one that might have the stalking app.
- Check to see if your phone has been “rooted” or “jailbroken.” Some stalking apps can only be installed on a phone that has been “rooted” or “jailbroken,” which gives a person full control over the phone’s operating system. “Root checker” apps can quickly tell you whether a phone has been rooted or jailbroken. But if there is stalkerware on the device, the abusive person may see this activity.
If you find that your phone has not been rooted or jailbroken, but the person knows more than they should about your phone or online activities, it may be that they are getting that information from your phone another way.
- Get a new smartphone or reset your phone. It might be safest to get a new smartphone with an account that the abuser doesn’t have access to. If you decide to keep your phone, consider doing a full factory reset of the device, which may remove the spyware. It’s important not to re-install programs or content from the old phone or your cloud, as this could re-install the spyware.
Remember that taking any of these steps could tip off your abuser — especially if you use your phone to research your options, make a call, or have a conversation near your phone. If you are concerned your phone might be monitored, consider leaving it behind when you are seeking help. Do what’s best in your particular situation.
Online safety is important for everyone but, for domestic violence victims, these tips may be particularly useful:
On your cell phone:
- Know where your phone is at all times. Malware, spyware, and tracking apps can be installed in just a few minutes. Be careful if someone wants to update or fix something on your phone. Also, beware of gifts of a new smartphone or tablet from an abuser to you or your children.
- Lock your phone. To minimize the risk of someone installing spyware or stalkerware, put a passcode on your phone — and don’t share it.
- Check your phone’s settings. Bluetooth and GPS can be used to track you. A victim advocate can help strategize a specific tech safety plan for your situation.
- If you think your phone is being monitored, consider getting a new one. If it’s safe to do so, talk to law enforcement or an advocate before making any changes to discuss options for evidence collection and getting a new device. Getting a new phone may be costly but may be necessary. You can also talk with your service provider to see if you can exchange the device, especially if it’s under warranty.
On your computer:
- Use strong passwords and change them frequently. Make sure you have passwords on your phone, computer, and all online accounts. Keep your passwords private.
- Use a different computer. If you think someone may be monitoring you, then try to use a safer computer — one that the abuser doesn’t have access to. It’s especially important to use a safer computer if you are researching an escape plan, new jobs, or a place to live.
- Change usernames and passwords of your online accounts on the safer computer. Then, don’t log into those accounts on any computer that you think is monitored.
For more information, check out the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s technology safety tips.
Help is available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. If you think you may be in danger right now, call 911.