No matter how hard she tried, Sara Khan could never shake the feeling she was somehow being watched by her obsessed ex-boyfriend.
Just weeks after ending her relationship with Anthony Ellis around July last year, she became the centre of a terrifying six month long stalking campaign. Working from home and avoiding trips outside just wasn’t enough, as her ex used a variety of online tools to keep tabs on her.
Now her tormentor awaits sentencing – having being found guilty at Croydon Magistrates Court – Sara has opened up about her ordeal to encourage other victims to come forward. She also wants to see more people using Clare’s Law – a scheme allowing people to ask police to check their partner’s records to assess if they could be a risk to them.
The nationwide Cyber Helpline say incidents of online staking have shot up by around 50%, meaning more people have felt unsafe in their own homes during the coronavirus lockdown. No matter how many times she tried to block her former partner’s calls after ending their relationship, Sara says Ellis kept on getting through to her by using an online hack to change his number. She said: ‘I kept getting call from the US and thinking it was colleagues, answering it and it would be him.
‘The first time I picked it up. I didn’t say anything I was just waiting for whoever it was to speak. I had received a few calls then from different numbers. He would say my name, I would just hang up.’
As the calls kept coming along with ‘God knows how many text messages’, Sara was forced to buy herself an emergency phone. But that didn’t stop Ellis from sending her more than 70 emails from various email addresses as he tried to get her attention. One message that really stuck with her was one saying ‘I miss your scared smile’. In others, he accused her of sleeping with other people since ending the relationship and ‘breaking his heart’.
Sara, from Wandsworth, southwest London, said she was forced to work from home after she realised Anthony had been lurking outside her office. Recalling how he repeatedly shared his location using the Find my Friends app to let her know he was nearby, she added: ‘I believe he did this to intimidate me and provoke a reaction to force me to break and contact him.’
On top of this she says Ellis made several attempts to hack into her social media accounts and somehow found a way to keep sending her messages and assigning her to tasks on web-based listing system Trello.
As a former caseworker, Sara is used to creating safety plans for vulnerable people, but she never thought she’d have to make one for herself.
She added: ‘I was relentless in trying to protect myself, particularly in not having any understanding and having to quickly educate myself with things like what’s an IP address, what’s a VPN? I had to really quickly understand ways in which I could protect myself.
‘I’m not the most tech-savvy and a lot of the things that I experienced were really sophisticated hacks.’
Fortunately Sara says she still had Ellis’ login details from before the breakup, meaning she could easily see her stalker’s internet history – with search terms including ‘how to hack a Macbook through a Mac ID.’
The pair originally met using Tinder, which Sara ended up using to gather evidence for her case. She had a feeling Ellis was using the dating app to track where she was, so she opened it while visiting a friend in York and logged off before returning to London so her location remained in Yorkshire.
She added: ‘I pretended I wasn’t in London even after I returned. When I went into the search history he was working out the distance from York to his address.’
Sara says collating an ordered document of evidence right from the start including plenty of screenshots made her experience of reporting her ordeal to the police much more straightforward.
Sara added: ‘My experience, having gone through this, especially as a woman, I think a lot of the time you’re kind of made to feel like you’re supposed to have been able to tell this person was going to be a stalker. You can’t tell if someone’s going to stalk you when you meet them.
‘I’m quite lucky in a way that I had that search history to back up what I was saying. I just kept a really detailed log, I kept notes, I created a Google document which helped when went to police.
‘They could see that it was having a massive impact on me I would also report it as early as possible and log everything as it’s happening. Apparently in most stalking cases they won’t report anything until the 100th incident.’
In her victim impact statement, Sara says she has installed several motion cameras at her house and that she no longer opens the door unless she knows for certain who it is.
Her living room blinds are always closed in case someone looks and she sleeps with a knife under her pillow and has hidden others in various points around the house in case there is a break-in.
She has a friend monitoring her geolocation at all times to make sure she’s safe and has set up an SOS function on her mobile phone to call emergency contacts if she’s in danger.
She says all of the security measures have cost her around £1,000 in total.
Sara says she has been diagnosed with PTSD, has been prescribed two types of anti-depressants and sees both a psychiatrist and trauma specialist.
She added: ‘I have lost a lot of weight over the last six months due to all the stress, crying multiple times a day, and not sleeping. I have lost interest in doing absolutely anything including eating.’
Despite trying her best to carry on, Sara says her ordeal seriously impacted her performance at work in marketing and communications, leaving her ‘hanging onto her job by a thread’.
Sara says that Ellis, 33, from Wallington, South London, was working on a neighbourhood networking app while they were still together and got her to test out some of its functions.
But she was surprised to find out she had been named as a director without receiving a notification from Companies House.
She was told the only way she could get herself removed would be through a solicitor and the whole process set her back by around £2,000 in legal fees.
Since her ordeal Sara has had to drastically scale back her social media use and changes her passwords once a month.
She uses two-factor authentication (2FA) to log into them and pays for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to hide her IP addresses on all devices.
Sara added: ‘I work in communications and marketing so being active on social media go hand in hand with the job. Since Anthony started stalking me I have kept a low profile and significantly reduce my digital presence as he was using this to keep tabs on me and my whereabouts.
‘I now have to think about every photo that may go up on not only my social media accounts but the accounts of other people.’
Ellis is next due at Croydon Magistrates’ Court on July 15 having been found guilty of stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress.
According Cyber Helpline, 38.1% of victims have been stalked between six to 12 times, while 33% have had someone on their tail for more than five years.
The non-profit organisation says 43.6% have been stalked by an ex-partner compared to 18.2% being tracked by someone they don’t know.
Just under 75% said they experienced someone monitoring their internet use while 63% said their predators used social media to track them.
Around 62% described the stalker’s motive as seeking revenge while 26% just don’t know why they were targeted. An estimated 82% of predators were in the same country but almost a fifth were based abroad and were tracking their victims remotely.
Cyber Helpline CEO Rory Innes said around 81% of stalking cases they come across have already been reported to police but that many have turned to the helpline as they are unsatisfied with the response from officers.
But more tricky when that person is not perceived to be a threat as that person is in a different country and is not in the police jurisdiction or is doing something that the police don’t understand. The assumption can be that it seems a little bit James Bond.’
Mr Innes said there’s been a 74% increase in cyber crime reported to them over the past two months of lockdown and a 50% rise in cyber stalking.
He added: ‘What we are seeing is a bigger impact on mental health. If you think about being cyber stalked, it’s 24/7. You don’t know in what way you’re being listened to or watched.’
He added: ‘We’ve seen a drop in the number of people who’ve reported it to the police over the past few months. I think that’s because they don’t want to worry the police in the middle of a pandemic.
Mr Innes urges any victims to report their problem to the police and engage with professionals who can give them a safety plan. He says the earlier they can figure out what makes the stalker tick, the better.
Recalling some of the ‘bizarre’ cases he has come across, Mr Innes said: ‘We had one incident with a stalking victim. When she was driving her car there was a really loud cat noise. She would stop she thought there was a cat in her engine or the bonnet.’
It turned out the stalker had somehow hacked into the sound-system of her hybrid car so the noise would be triggered whenever passed a location she often drove by.
Mr Innes added: ‘It was just messing with her head, it’s a really common phenomenon in cyber stalking and domestic abuse called gaslighting, where you make the victim think that they’re not believing themselves.
As well as social media and email based harassment, volunteers at the Cyber Helpline have seen it all including predators tampering with victims’ Alexa virtual assistants, lighting and heating to freak them out.
Mr Innes added: ‘What you have to do when you’re being stalked, there’s a whole bunch of processes but ideally you kind of keep going as you were, what you don’t want to do is go completely offline because if you do that you might force the stalker into different behaviour.
‘Be careful about how you share location – try and understand more about the stalker and what they’re doing before going to police.
‘It can cause a real short term problem. Remember, the stalker is absolutely obsessed with this individual. As soon as they’re cut off they’re going to try and keep contact in some way. You might force someone into physical stalking which can present a different risk.’