by Leslie Todd, LCSW, ACSW
Those of us who work with victims of intimate partner violence or vengeful ex-partners have seen how badly technology can be misused to harm our clients. And we also know that just as private citizens, we have to be on guard against cyber shenanigans. Then there’s our offices, our
electronics files, our phones….it’s pretty daunting, right?
Fortunately, there are folks who specialize in educating us so we can keep our clients and ourselves safe.
Steven Bradley began his career with the FBI, starting a task force which investigated technology and cyber-related crimes. Later, he worked with state coalitions and local domestic violence/sexual assault center as a liaison between law enforcement and community partners to better support survivors and victims. Today, he works with Our Family Wizard to promote healthy communication between co- parents via technology. He has been an international trainer for over 25 years, and recently presented at the AFCC-LA State Conference on March 18th on this subject. He agreed to share further information with The Psychology Times regarding handling the very difficult cyber abuse issues our clients may bring in—and tips for protecting ourselves as well.
First, let’s start with Bradley’s pet peeve: people who don’t use passwords, or use them poorly. Your first defense against hacking is to have a complex password, and to keep it private. Too many of us still use lazy and highly guessable ones like “12345” or “password”– and many people don’t even put a password on their smartphones. If you worry about not being able to keep up with all your passwords (and no, you should not use one password for everything), then allow your device to generate a complex password which will then be stored for you. And do NOT tape it to your laptop or otherwise leave it handy for others to discover.
So—sloppy security starts with sloppy passcode management. If you have a client who is endangered or may be at risk of being stalked, have them list ALL their social media and other sensitive sites and discuss changing their passwords and security questions to things the stalker could not possibly know. That means no birthdays, pet or child names, or any other easily-guessed information. Remember to have them check medical portals as well.
Thanks to “the internet of things,” it is possible that your client is being monitored via a car’s nav system or some other device. Make sure you discuss with your clients what technologies are being used such as Bluetooth, GPS, On-Star, etc.
Bradley stresses that we should all keep our Bluetooth OFF unless we are actively using it, because it is easily hacked. Also public access internet, such as in hotels or cafes, is highly vulnerable to hacking. Malicious software can be installed, including tracking devices. And remember to check the location services in a phone’s settings to be sure you or your client is not giving away your location. Bradley noted that when he was to meet an abused client at court, he would first meet with them near the courthouse in a fast-food place, where they would both then turn off their location and Bluetooth settings. After court, they would return to the same fast-food place or gas station and turn them back on. That way, anyone monitoring would only track them to the innocuous site and not know about Court or other more sensitive destination.
Also, check with your vulnerable client to see if they have devices that were provided by the suspected person. If a cellphone has been provided by the abusive party, ask your client to consider using a donated or new cell phone. Same for a computer. If the client is looking for a new place to live or making travel plans, ask them to use a computer at a public library.
The client should also update all privacy settings on any dating sites and social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, TikTok, etc.) and be very wary of what they post. Remember that pictures and images can be searched as well as names and words.
Another way to safeguard a phone is to choose an optional service, like Google Voice, to keep a personal number safe. Some of these services will let you forward calls and messages to up to five different phones while you simple have one phone number. That way, if the client’s number is compromised, they can log in and change one phone number instead of having to contact the phone company to change many.
Other than tracking people, cyber-hacking can allow the bad guys to “spoof” your phone. This means that you may answer a call which looks like it’s coming from your mom, but it is really the hacker. Spoofing allows threatening texts to show up from anonymous numbers (or highjacked ones, like Mom’s.) In one of my high-conflict divorce cases, each of the spouses was spoofing their OWN phones with threats ostensibly from their ex.
As a mental health professional, you may have tried to secure your office space and your files— but your cellphone and your car may betray you. Bradley points out that a judge may feel safe in her courtroom, but once she gets in her car, she is as vulnerable as the next person unless she takes cyber precautions to safeguard her devices (including her car). In a world where our clients can Google images of our home and family, we need to keep this in mind.
If you do work with court systems or government agencies, you should know that they often publish records online. Ask them how they protect or publish your records and request that access to your files is sealed or restrict to protect you and your client’s safety.
Bradley lives in this cyberworld everyday, but understands that we are far less aware than he is. He notes that he most common mistake he sees professionals make is to brush off a client’s suspicion that someone may be monitoring them. Since abusers love to make their clients feel or look crazy, we should be wary not to add to the gaslighting. Abusers can use highly subtle methods that will make your client sound paranoid. For instance, I had a client who would frequently find she had a flat tire in the morning. She assumed she was hitting nails around a construction site—until her mechanic pointed out the frequency and types of punctures and boldly asked her if she was going through a divorce. Bingo. She ended up seeking counseling, and we discovered many more dangerous indications of stalking.
Bradley’s talk was such a hit at our AFCC-LA State Conference that we are going to have him return to do a half-day training later in the year, specifically for mental health and legal professionals. We’ll be sure to publicize that event. Meanwhile, if you’d like a handout from Bradley on this basic information, email me at Leslie.firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pass it along to you.
[Editor’s Note: Leslie Todd served as the founding President of the Louisiana Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). Her contributions were acknowledged by AFCC when they named her an “AFCC Ambassador,” a designation exemplifying the collegial and collaborative spirit of AFCC membership.]