Stalking is the ongoing pursuit of a specific person without their consent. Examples of stalking behavior include following someone, waiting outside their house, and spying on their activities.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, this behavior is stalking if it causes emotional distress or would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety.
Read on to learn more about the types of stalking, signs of stalking, and what to do if a person is experiencing stalking.
Stalking is when a perpetrator pursues or watches someone without their consent.
Even if a person is not aware of the stalking, or they have not explicitly told the perpetrator to stop, the behavior is still stalking. This is because it is still taking place without consent, which makes it abusive.
Some examples of stalking behavior include:
- following a person as they go about their daily tasks
- waiting for them outside their house
- visiting places they often go to spy on them
- attempting to get into their home or workplace
Stalking can occur with or without harassment. Harassment is repeated and unwanted attempts to contact a person. This could be via:
- in-person threats, bullying, or intimidation
- texts or phone calls
- email or social media
- letters or notes
- unwanted gifts
- unscheduled visits
Stalking and harassment can escalate to physical violence.
There are different ways to categorize stalking. One way is to classify it by motivation.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, simple obsessional stalking is the most common form of stalking. It is when a person stalks an ex-partner or ex-employer. Often, this is because they feel wronged or rejected.
Some other motivations for stalking include:
- Love obsessional: In this type of stalking, the perpetrator is a stranger or casual acquaintance and starts using stalking behavior to get someone to notice them.
- Erotomania: This mental health condition causes a person to incorrectly believe someone is in love with them. They may be convinced the relationship is “meant to be,” which leads to stalking.
- False victimization: This is a rare cause of stalking in which a person believes someone has been targeting them, but they are actually the perpetrator doing the stalking.
Different legal systems can also categorize stalking in different ways, such as how it manifests or its severity.
Some signs a person may be experiencing stalking include:
- repeatedly noticing a person hanging around outside the home or workplace
- seeing them take undue interest in what is going on inside, such as by peering through windows or taking photos
- being followed or watched by someone in their car
- noticing the person or their car in other places, such as en route to work or at the grocery store
- receiving mail that has already been opened
- receiving notifications that another person has tried to access online accounts or reset passwords
- observing signs that someone has tried to break into the home
- personal items or trash going missing
In some cases, a person who is stalking an individual may also stalk friends, family, or neighbors to gain more information. It may be worth asking if anyone else has noticed these signs.
Some potential early warning signs of stalking in relationships include:
- knowing personal information about someone without having to ask for it
- trying to read a person’s texts or emails
- asking a lot of questions about a person’s whereabouts, who they spend time with, and their relationships
- frequently messaging, emailing, or phoning them
- trying to flirt or pursue a romantic relationship even though the person has said no
- turning up unannounced
Some people may view these behaviors as romantic, but they reflect a lack of regard for consent, which can be problematic. In some cases, these behaviors may be a precursor to controlling or abusive behavior.
In terms of the effects, the nonprofit Action Against Stalking states stalking can:
- make a person feel on edge or anxious
- cause low mood or depression
- cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- affect a person’s ability to concentrate
- make them late for work or school
- cause insomnia, headaches, or other physical symptoms
- affect finances due to expensive upgrades in security
- cause them to relocate to feel safe
Stalking disproportionately affects women. A 2022 study found that most stalking perpetrators are men, while most who report stalking are women.
Researchers also found that one-third of people who stalk eventually assault their victim. Among women whose ex-partner is stalking them, this increases to half.
Stalking is a federal crime when a person crosses state lines, enters or leaves Native American land, or stalks on federal property.
Individual states have their own laws about stalking that takes place within the state. The exact definition of stalking can vary, though. Some states may require that:
- the perpetrator has specific motivations or intent
- the person experiencing stalking has a certain level of emotional distress
- the person experiencing stalking is in physical danger
People may benefit from speaking with a victim support organization or a lawyer to understand local legislation.
A single unwanted contact is not stalking. However, it could be another crime. For example, opening or destroying mail for someone else is a crime, as is:
- breaking and entering
Some people report having difficulty getting the police to act. Police may sometimes underestimate the impact or danger of stalking.
Sexism can play a role in people not taking stalking seriously. A 2020 study with college students found that people who had sexist beliefs were more likely to minimize the impact of stalking and to blame the victim.
This does not mean a person should not seek help. The following section explains what a person can do about stalking.
The priority for people experiencing stalking is their safety.
If a person is currently safe, they can then begin taking steps to increase security, such as:
- stopping all contact with the perpetrator
- always locking doors, windows, and cars
- installing deadbolts, home alarms, or motion sensor security cameras
- telling trusted friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers about the stalking
- notifying the security department of a person’s place of work
- if children live in the house, notifying their school
- avoiding walking or going places alone
- removing addresses and phone numbers from directories
- using an answering machine to screen calls and record any messages
When telling others about the stalking, it is a good idea to provide the perpetrator’s name, a physical description, and a photo of them, if possible. Tell the person what to do if they show up or try to make contact.
For digital security, people can also:
- update all passwords on all devices
- use two-step authentication whenever possible
- set all online accounts to private
- remove and block the perpetrator on social media
- only allow followers they personally know to see their posts
- uninstall any unfamiliar apps or software
- remove phone numbers from directories
Documenting the stalking is also advisable. It shows how frequent and how serious the behavior is. People can:
- keep a diary of the stalking with dates and times
- take photographs, as long as it is safe to do so
- save security camera footage
- take screenshots of conversations
- save letters or voice notes
The following support organizations may be able to help provide advice or safety planning:
When to call the police
People should report each and every incident of stalking to the police. Similarly, if they receive any threats, they should treat them as serious and contact the police immediately.
If a person is in immediate danger, call 911 or local emergency services and find a safe place to go, such as:
- a family or friend’s house
- a police station
- a family crisis center or women’s shelter
Some people may not take stalking seriously due to the misconception that these behaviors can be romantic or are merely annoying. However, it is not uncommon for stalking to escalate to violence.
If a person suspects they are experiencing stalking, they can seek help to protect their safety and support for the emotional effects.