Smart home spying: Smart home technology being used by abusers to control, terrorize

Local domestic violence shelter trained to help victims spot the signs

ORLANDO, Fla. – Imagine the temperature changing on your thermostat without you doing it, or seeing your lights turn off and on without you touching the switch. 

Or your Alexa blaring music in the middle of the night. Or finding hidden cameras placed in your home -- without your knowledge or consent.

These are the sort of things abusive partners and exes can use to try to control their loved ones and if it's happening to you, you need to report it.

"It was awful, absolutely awful," said Aubrey, a Houston woman who spoke with News 6 sister station KPRC about her fiancé secretly watching her in her home. "Everywhere I went, everything I did, he could hear it. He could see it. It was awful."

Aubrey says after she and her fiancé moved in together, she discovered he had installed cameras throughout the house without her knowledge or consent. She said she discovered it by accident while using his cellphone.

"When I went to hit to get to his home screen, I double-clicked it and the app popped up of videos in the house and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I see, that's me,'" Aubrey said. "So I started walking around the house and the app shows every room that I'm walking in, all the way through the house."

Aubrey said when she confronted her fiancé, he claimed he installed the cameras for security. She then broke off the engagement.

"To actually see yourself on somebody else's device, not knowing that that's what's going on in your life -- spooky," Aubrey said. "And as safe as it may sound -- I felt very unsafe."

Police said while things like in-home surveillance cameras can be great at helping them identify and catch criminals in the act, they can be used for nefarious purposes.

"Every time we get an advance in technology, the bad guys seem to take advantage of it," Oviedo police Lt. Travis Cockcroft said.

He said his department has yet to receive a report of this kind of smart home spying and harassment, and the same is true for other Central Florida police agencies we checked.  

"What we normally see are cyberstalking cases which involve Facebook, texting, emails -- that type of thing," Cockcroft said.

Regardless, Cockcroft said stalking and harassment is a crime, no matter what form it takes, and can lead to both misdemeanor and felony charges.

He said with the cost of smart home devices going down, more and more homes are ending up with this kind of technology.

"Sometimes when they split up they may forget those cameras and things are set up," Cockcroft said. "And the spouse or significant other may still have access to it." 

Michelle Sperzel is the head of Harbor House, which helps empower and educate both men and women dealing with domestic abuse. 

She said her staff and advocates recently received training on how smart devices like Alexa and Google Home can be used by abusers to stalk and harass their victims.

"So when they are working with survivors they can ask questions for awareness purposes and even ask questions to help build a case against the abuser," Sperzel said.

So what are some other unusual tactics an abuser might use to disarm or confuse you?

Things like sending packages to you that you did not order and charging your bank or credit card account, or digitally locking or unlocking your door.

"And it might be that the lock is something that has been changed the password to or it was something done remotely," Sperzel said.

Sperzel said the good thing is those same electronic devices that an abuser can use to harass their victims also have digital records and that can help build a case against the abuser.

"And so what we can do is empower survivors to know more about it, so that they are able to be more proactive or reactive in that situation but do it in a safe way," Sperzel said.

Sperzel said physical violence is often not the first sign of a controlling relationship, it is usually more psychological. 

She said in many cases, the abuser will try to be charming, and act like they are helping their partner, when in fact all they are trying to do is gain total control.

"They'll set up your new phone, they'll set up your password, they'll set up the nest in your home," Sperzel said. "Well that person now has access to all of your usernames and passwords. And so that's one place that person has taken control of your digital footprint and your digital (life) and so we really talk to survivors about the fact that is also power and control."

Both police and victims’ advocates agree, if you suspect someone is using smart home technology to stalk or harass you, call them for help.

"These things can escalate to violence so we want to catch it early," Cockroft said. "You shouldn't live in fear in your own home."

So what are some things you can do to break free of an abuser's digital trap? 

  • Make sure you change your passwords on all of your accounts. 
  • Reset your Wi-Fi settings to something only you would know. 
  • Educate yourself about what your smart home devices can do.
  • Reset privacy settings.
  • Keep a journal of any peculiar activity with dates and times and description of what happened.

That can help provide police with valuable information about what the perpetrator may have access to in your home and help them track down forensic information to prove it.

Understanding technology will empower you to protect yourself and the people you love, and keep you from becoming a victim of a smart home stalker.