Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stalkers: The Psychological Terrorist

Self Protection

Book cover: The Gift of Fear
Book cover: The Gift
of Fear

Gavin de Becker, a private consultant on security in southern California and author of The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence, offers services to a long list of celebrities. He believes that the media is partly responsible for the increased incidents of celebrity stalking since so much attention is focused on these people. He sees all the gifts, notes, and messages sent to the stars, from razors and half-eaten food to nude photographs and locks of human hair to flagrantly sexual items or body parts. There was even a letter that numbered over one thousand pages, and one person received a coyote's head. Some stalkers, such as the woman who broke into David Letterman's home, believe there's a relationship already intact.

Among the signals to beware of when a potential stalker approaches, according to de Becker are:

  1. Forced teaming: He will try to get you to be a "we" with him in some predicament.
  2. Charm, which usually has motive driving it. Be aware of the possibilities.
  3. Too many details in some narratives indicate possible deception.
  4. Loan sharking, or doing something to make you feel you owe him.
  5. Unsolicited promises
  6. Ignoring the word "no," through things like proposing alternatives

De Becker has designed a computer program to help law enforcement analyze stalkers and their correspondences, yet unfortunately there's no good method yet for determining when the threat of violence will turn into a genuine danger.

Dr. Park Dietz, a psychiatric consultant to the FBI and head of California's Threat Assessment Group, notes that an expressed desire for contact is more likely to lead to real contact. He notes that a stalker who threatens someone using specific dates or spells out a method of approach is more likely to carry out his threat than if the stalker left things vague. An enduring correspondence filled with threats was also something to take seriously, yet all predictions are based on probability, and a single threatening call or note is not to be ruled out.

It's difficult to protect yourself against a stalker, since the most casual encounter on the street may trigger the aggressor. It may be something you wear or the color of your hair, or just the fact that you were in a specific place on a specific date. One stalker told a woman that the fact that she was in the same bookstore as him on the anniversary of a European battle that captured his fancy meant that God had ordained their entwined destiny.

If a stalker comes into your life, there are certain safety precautions to take:

  1. Do not personally respond to the stalker's attention, not even to tell him (or her) to get lost. (People erroneously believe that a rational conversation will dissuade such people.)
  2. Beef up your home security and in the event of a threatening letter or call, alert your local police so they have it on record. (The local police will often give a free home security consultation.)
  3. Remove landscaping behind which someone can hide or keep surveillance.
  4. Keep detailed documentation of all actual contacts.
  5. If others witnessed an encounter, talk to them about testifying in court.
  6. Learn self-protection techniques, such as pepper sprays and self-defense skills.
  7. Keep a cell phone and an emergency number with you, and tell family and friends about any threat.
  8. Keep a pen and paper in your car to write down license numbers of cars following you.
  9. Alternate your routes.
  10.  Research the legal remedies available in your state.
  11.  If letters or calls persist, have an attorney send a registered cease-and-desist letter.
  12. Keep travel plans to a trusted few.
  13. In the event of actual trespass, get a restraining order.
  14. Inform security staff where you work about the problem.
  15. If you know what the stalker drives, give the description to friends and family.
  16. Keep a camera handy for photographic documentation.
  17. If you can afford it, install a surveillance camera.
  18. Install activity lights around your house that light up at night when someone walks close.
  19. Don't accept unexpected packages
  20. Identify people before opening a door.
  21. Seek therapy if you experience the symptoms of extreme anxiety.
  22. Avoid blaming yourself for the situation.
  23. Refrain from retaliation or counter-threats; the stalker is seeking {any} form of contact.
  24. Be sure that someone knows where you are going and when you are coming home.
  25. Try to go places with a friend or associate, especially health clubs and parking lots.
  26. Don't let the stalker rule your life.
  27. Prepare a safety kit with overnight items in the event you feel you need to leave your home and go to a hotel.
  28. Use caller ID and possibly get a second line with an unlisted number; then use the line on which he calls to record his harassment without him realizing that you're not using that phone.
  29. If it works for you, get a dog with a protective temperament.
  30. If you don't want to or know how to use a gun, assess your living space for possible defensive weapons and have them ready.
  31. Locate support groups, threat management groups, or hotlines that can offer specific strategies.
  32. Use a gender-neutral and non-provocative email address.
  33. Don't give out your Internet password and change it regularly.
  34. Use a chat network where harassment is not permitted.
  35. For Internet chats, use a different screen name than your email address.
  36. Don't give a lot of personal details to strangers.
  37. Be aware that stalkers can employ others to get information about you.
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