Former NYPD officer and “Cannibal Cop” Gil Valle’s disturbing new book A Gathering of Evil — which details the stalking, abduction, and murder of two women — may be a work of fiction, but real-life cases happen every day.
Roughly 1 million American women and 400,000 men in the United States are stalked each year, and over 8 million women and 2 million men will be stalked at some point during their lives, according to the National Center For Victims of Crime.
Would you know if your life was turning into an episode of Obsession: Dark Desires? How do you know if you’re being followed? And is there anything you can do to avoid stalkers?
As a licensed private investigator who has followed hundreds of people as part of my job, I can provide a few tips on how to know if you are being stalked — and what to do about it.
Vary your routine.
Whether it’s a PI working a case or an angry ex-lover, most stalkers spend a lot of time doing surveillance, and a predictable schedule makes it much easier for them.
So leave and return from work and home at different times — even a few minutes can make a difference — or consider carpooling. If you take the subway or bus, get off at a different stop. Take different exits off the freeway.
Don’t go solo.
That old saying about their being safety in numbers? It’s a cliche because it’s true.
In Valle’s book, one of the kidnap victims became easier to follow because she parked on the less secure side streets, which were a short walk from the Long Island Rail Road station.
Also, if you’re concerned about your safety, always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Don’t go out hiking or jogging by yourself — always go with a friend. This includes parking in public, well-lit areas, asking a security guard to escort you to your car, or taking an Über instead of walking alone to a deserted subway stop late at night.
Embarrassment often causes victims to stay silent, but this can be dangerous. Tell your friends, family, and coworkers what is going on — this lets them know that under no circumstances should they speak to the stalker. This will also help you gain intel, since they can alert you if they see the person.
If you’re being stalked at work, it may be worth asking your boss if you can change shifts or hours temporarily.
Install home security.
A home security system can help protect you by alerting you and law enforcement to danger, and a surveillance camera can show you if someone has been hanging around your property, broken into your home, or dug through your trash looking for personal items.
I also recommend that clients change their locks to deadbolts, shred all documents before putting them in the trash, and get a P.O. box if their mailbox is outside and insecure.
When you are in public, don’t zone out! Take your earphones out, stop looking down at your phone, and really notice who is around you in the crowd.
If someone seems to be repeatedly showing up where you are, make a note of them and, if it’s safe, try to snap a picture or at least make an audio recording describing their appearance — including details like height, approximate age, weight, skin color, hair color, and any identifying marks.
If I’m concerned about someone following me, I’ll try a diversionary tactic like getting off at an exit and then getting back onto the highway and then seeing if they follow me.
If I’m on the street, I’ll step aside into a safe, public place, pretend to be texting or making a call, and then look to see if the person stops and goes the other way, or if they keep walking.
Take stalking seriously.
Most of us don’t hesitate to call 911 if we are in dangerous situations, but sometimes we forget how seemingly “harmless” gestures can quickly escalate.
That strange guy you went on one awful date with who won’t stop sending you flowers may seem funny now, but situations can quickly escalate. So tell the person once, firmly, that you want no further communication with them. After that, save any voicemails, text messages, and social-media messages so that you can report them to police.
Check your social media.
While we’re focusing on what to do if you’re being followed in real life rather than online, it’s worth mentioning this tip so that victims don’t unintentionally leave virtual footprints that lead stalkers to their door.
If you are concerned that someone may be following you, the last thing that you want to do is to make it easy for them! Turn off location services on your phone and all social media, and avoid posting clues about your location on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or anywhere else.
Also, tweak your privacy settings on Facebook — the idea is to make sure that random people can’t get too much information about your relationship status and movements, or stalk you by “friending” one of your friends.
Learn defensive moves.
Drive defensively. Experts recommend making four turns — or exiting off the freeway and then getting back on — if you suspect that someone is following you while driving.
If you still see a car behind you, lock your doors, roll up the windows, and call police — or drive straight to a police station.
In case a confrontation turns physical, I recommend carrying pepper spray — and, whatever self-defense method you use, make sure that you practice actually using it.
Read more: The National Center for Victims of Crime
Main photo: Photo of “stalker” [Patrik Nygren / Flickr]