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Romantic breakups are leaving too many people vulnerable to creepy behavior, study finds

How aware are you about stalkerware?

Photo (c) Marco Piunti - Getty Images
“Thanks for the Valentine’s gift – and thanks for the passwords… bye, bye!”

A new study suggests that many Americans are playing things a little too loose online when it comes to attitudes about breakups – especially younger Americans.

The survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Norton, reveals that Gen Z (ages 18-25) and Millennials (ages 26-42) have “concerningly relaxed” attitudes about online stalking and over one-third say they really don't care if they’re being stalked online by a current or former partner, just as long as they’re not being stalked in-person. These percentages are more than three times higher than what older adults (age 58+) reported. 

And once a relationship is kaput, 80% of the respondents said they didn’t change their passwords, leaving themselves even more vulnerable. The GenZ’ers lead the way in that metric, with more than a third saying have shared passwords with their ex – something that may come back to haunt them once Netflix starts to put some teeth into its password-sharing pushback.

"This research is a wake-up call. The fact that so many Gen Z and Millennials think online stalking is acceptable tells us that more needs to be done to educate younger generations about the dangers," said Kevin Roundy, senior technical director of Norton Labs. 

"There is an important distinction between curiosity, such as searching someone up online to learn more about them, versus invading someone's privacy or stalking. These attitudes and behaviors are a slippery slope that could place people in real danger, whether the stalking is online or in-person."

Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places

Norton’s study also threw some shade on people who are looking for their true love online. One in four Americans (25%) admitted that they have been the victim of an online dating or romance scam. And that number could go even higher as cybercriminals continue to favor catfishing scams, lurking in places like dating sites where they can get away with an average of $230 per victim.

“Difficult, maybe impossible to distinguish paid members who can reply to a message from free members who cannot,” Scotty of Joshua Tree, CA wrote in their review of OurTime. “Way too many likes and messages from people living hundreds, even thousands of miles away. Have been instantly blocked by too many members after only mentioning fake profiles or catfishing.”

The report also pulled back the curtain on just how much people go creeping around their ex after a breakup. Among those who have been in romantic relationships, 16% say that they’ve checked a current or former significant other's phone to view texts, calls, direct messages, emails or photos, 12% have reviewed their former lover’s device search history, and 11% have tracked a current or former partner's location using a location sharing app.

“One possible explanation for relaxed attitudes about online creeping and stalking is a lack of understanding of how sinister it can become,” Norton’s analysts said.

“While curious internet searches or scrolls through social media might be normal or harmless, on the other side of the spectrum are more serious online stalking behaviors, including the use of stalkerware and creepware apps used to covertly monitor someone's text messages, phone calls, direct messages, emails or photos.’

We all need to get smarter about stalkerware

Stalkerware/spyware isn’t a term bandied about much and the study revealed that a majority of Americans (83%) are unfamiliar with it, indicating a need for more education and awareness.

Still, it’s a real thing and it’s moving into our digital ecosystem quickly. Earlier this month, the New York attorney general’s office levied a $410,000 fine on Patrick Hinchy and the 16 companies that he runs – all of which produce and sell spyware and stalkerware.

New York authorities charged that the software products Hinchy’s companies sold allowed users to monitor activity on another device completely undercover – including everything single aspect that could creep almost anyone out: social media activity, Gmail activity, call logs, text messages, photos and videos, location, WhatsApp and Skype messages, and internet site browsing history.

Norton, for one, is trying to make it easier for the public to gird against cybercreeping by developing apps that spot stalkerware and creepware through its Norton Mobile Security for Android. Others like Apple have also joined in.

The Coalition Against Stalkerware is trying to educate the public and offers a free and complete guide on how to detect, remove, and prevent stalkerware as well as agencies that offer support for anyone who feels like they’re being stalked online.

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