Stalking: What to Do and How to Stay Safe

woman being stalked

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Each year, an estimated 6 to 7.5 million people are stalked in the United States. Aside from causing emotional and psychological distress, stalking also can lead to physical and sexual violence.

For this reason, it's important that people who are being stalked understand what stalking is, know how to stay safe and understand their legal options. Here is everything you need to know about stalking and what you can do to stay safe.

What Is Stalking?

When most people think of stalking, they probably imagine a stranger prowling around a person's house at night, showing up at their office uninvited, or following a person from place to place. But stalking involves so much more than just following someone around.

Oftentimes, the person stalking another makes threats or intends to harm the person in some way. Additionally, stalking also can occur online as well, and this version is often called cyberstalking.

According to United States Justice Department, stalking is a crime that occurs when someone engages in "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress."

Some examples of stalking include non-consensual communication, sending unwanted gifts, leaving bizarre items for the target, following the target, lying in wait for the target, damaging the target's property, making threats, defaming the target's character, harassing the target online, posting false information online, and spreading rumors. Like domestic abuse, stalking is about power and control and can escalate into dangerous and life-threatening behavior.

How Often Stalking Occurs

According to the Centers for Disease Control, stalking is fairly common, with 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men experiencing stalking in some form during their lifetime. Nearly 54% of female targets and 41% of male targets who have been stalked experienced this menacing behavior before age 25.

What's more, almost half of people who are stalked experience at least one unwanted contact per week. And, 11% of those targeted are stalked for five years or longer.

Although stalking can be committed by a total stranger, most people who are stalked know the person in some capacity. And many times, stalking will get worse over time and can even become violent.

In fact, nearly 50% of people who were stalked experience one or more violent incidents. Meanwhile, 31% of women who were stalked by an intimate partner were also sexually assaulted.

Consequences of Stalking

Research shows stalking can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as injury and even death. In fact, about 68% of female and 70% of male victims experienced threats of physical harm during their lifetime.

Because there are so many unknowns with stalking—such as not knowing when the person stalking you will show up or what they might do—stalking can create a great deal of fear and uncertainty. In fact, nearly 50% of those who are stalked fear not knowing what will happen next, and nearly 30% are afraid the stalking will never stop.

Stalking also can cause those who are targeted to lose sleep as well as time at work. As many as 1 in 8 of those who are stalked miss work, while 1 in 7 moves as a result of being victimized. Stalking also causes high levels of anxiety and social dysfunction.

What You Can Do

Stalking consists of repeated and unwanted attention that can make you feel afraid, unsafe, and stressed out. For this reason, it can sometimes be hard to know what to do in order to feel safer and cope with the negative impact of stalking.

But if you are proactive and implement some safety strategies and ask for help from friends and family members as well as local law enforcement, it should help ease your concerns some. That said, while it's important to implement as many safety precautions as possible, you will never completely eliminate the risks associated with being stalked.

So, you will need to continue to be as vigilant as you can and never hesitate to contact the police if you are concerned or in danger.

General Safety Strategies

When it comes to stalking, there are some things you can do to make your life a little safer. In addition to going out in groups, keeping your home locked, and being aware of your surroundings, here are some other safety strategies to help you deal with the stalking you're experiencing.

  • Find a safe place to go if someone is following you. For instance, go to the nearest police station or fire station, a friend's house, a public place, or a shelter. Know where these locations are in your community and how to get there.
  • Carry your cell phone with you at all times and keep it charged. You want to be able to call for help if you need to.
  • Trust your instincts. If you feel like something is wrong or unsafe, trust your gut. Consider leaving the uncomfortable situation, even if nothing is happening at the moment. Usually, your instincts or gut reaction is your first warning that you're in danger.
  • Vary your routes and your routines. If you always take the same route to work or walk your dog at the same time every day, these patterns make it easier for a stalker to find you and monitor your activities. Try to take different routes and vary your routine. You may even want to change where you shop and get coffee so that it's harder for the person stalking you to predict where you will be at any given time.
  • Exercise with a buddy. If you enjoy running, hiking, biking, or walking, you should consider getting a buddy to work out with. Exercising alone or in secluded areas like bike trails or in parks can put you at risk when it comes to stalking.
  • Try not to go too many places alone. Although it may be difficult to have someone with you at all times, the less time you are alone when you're out, the better. For example, ask your friends or family members to accompany you if you need to walk to your car after dark or invite a friend to go shopping with you.
  • Be cautious of what you post online. Even if you have blocked the person stalking you online, there are ways for them to see what you're up to. So, be sure you are not sharing too many details about your life. You also should avoid checking in to different locations online. Doing so, allows the person stalking you to know where you are at the moment.
  • Consider taking a self-defense class. Although the best defense is to put distance between you and the person stalking you, you want to be sure you know how to defend yourself in case they catch you by surprise or there is no way out. Taking a self-defense class also can help you feel more empowered and self-confident.
  • Create a safety plan. Even though you are likely not living with the person stalking you, a safety plan can help you prepare for different scenarios and strategize on how to stay safe. Plus, going through the steps can help you feel empowered and like you are taking control of your situation.
  • Refrain from responding to emails and messages. In general, it's best not to respond to someone who is stalking you. Don't answer their emails, texts, phone calls, messages, or even just to tell them to stop. Any type of response, even an angry one, could be encouraging to the person stalking you.
  • Seek counseling. If you are currently being stalked, it's important that you take care of your mental health. Stalking is a traumatic experience and many of those targeted experience depressive disorders or PTSD. A trained mental health professional can help you navigate this situation and help you take care of yourself mentally and emotionally.

Strategies For Home, School, and Work

Regardless of whether you are at home, work, or school, there is a possibility that the person stalking you could show up or contact you in some way. For this reason, it's important to think about how you can stay safe in each of these locations.

Here are some tips for staying safe at home, school, and work:

  • Make sure your home is secure. Invest in alarms, video doorbells, security systems, and locks to keep your home as secure as possible if you can.
  • Park in well-lit and well-populated areas. If you have a car that you use for work or entertainment, be sure that you are cautious about where you park and ask someone to walk you to your car if you're ever concerned. Once inside your car or your home, pull the door closed and lock it immediately. Allowing a door to close on its own gives someone following you an opportunity to put their foot in the door and force their way in.
  • Let people know you're being stalked. Whether it's your employer, neighbors, or classmates, make sure they know that you are being harassed. Although it might be a little embarrassing at first to talk about, it's important that you keep other people informed so that they can watch out for you. For instance, a neighbor might notice someone sneaking around your house and alert you and the police. Or a classmate might notice a strange person lurking outside of class and let you know. Having people watch out for you is an added layer of protection.
  • Identify escape routes. Knowing how you could get out of your home, your office, or your classroom is important, should the person stalking you break in or arrive unannounced. If you know ahead of time how you could escape, you won't waste time thinking of a plan. You will already know what to do.

Legal Options

Keep in mind that stalking is a crime in all 50 states. Even though it is not always considered a felony, with only one-third of states classifying it as a felony after the first offense, there are other factors that could elevate the charges. Regardless, if you are being stalked, it's important to notify the police and file an official complaint. Here are some other steps you can take to help you feel safe.

  • Create a stalking log. Keep track of when and where the stalking occurs, including any witnesses. Write down the date, time, and location as well as how it made you feel. This information will be useful for police officers as well as an attorney should you need to get someone involved.
  • File a complaint with the police. Make sure you let them know about any stalking that has occurred as well as threats of violence and damage to your property. Even if there is nothing they can do initially, you will have a complaint on file should the stalking continue or escalate in some way.
  • Ask if you can get a restraining order or an order of protection. Although laws vary by state, most people who have been stalked two or more times can get an order of protection, which requires the person stalking you to stay away from you. They also are not permitted to contact you in any way, and if they do, they are breaking the law and can be held accountable.
  • Save evidence of stalking and online harassment. This evidence might include emails, notes, gifts, videos from security systems, voicemail messages, text messages, social media posts, or anything that demonstrates that the person is contacting you consistently and without permission.

If you are being stalked and are in immediate danger, do not hesitate to call 911 right away. You also can reach out to the Stalking Resource Center National Center for Victims of Crime Helpline at 855-4-VICTIM (484-2846), Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) 24 hours a day, seven days a week for advice from trained advocates.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to stalking, a lot of people assume that if they just ignore the behavior that it will eventually go away. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Keep in mind that people who stalk others are already violating boundaries and making their targets feel unsafe. For this reason, it's important to take steps to protect yourself as well as involve local law enforcement.

You also should consider getting the help of a mental health professional. What you're experiencing is significant, and it can impact your mental health in a number of ways.

For instance, depression, anxiety, and even PTSD are common responses to this type of experience. A trained professional can help you process your feelings as well as offer guidance and support as you manage this situation.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center. Stalking fact sheet.

  2. Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center. Stalking and intimate partner violence: Fact sheet.

  3. U.S. Department of Justice. Stalking.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stalking: Know it. Name it. Stop it.

  5. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Stalking safety planning.

  6. Dreßing H, Gass P, Schultz K, Kuehner C. The prevalence and effects of stalkingDtsch Arztebl Int. 2020;117(20):347-353. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2020.0347

  7. National Conference of State Legislatures. Domestic violence/domestic abuse definitions and relationships.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.