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Thandi's story: The terror of cyber-stalking (based on a true story)

crisisThandi clicked through to her profile page. She stared hard at the screen, deep in thought, pressed the palms of her hands to her tired eyes and sighed. She clicked ‘Edit personal info’ and when the dropdown appeared under ‘Relationship status’, she paused and took a deep breath, she couldn’t believe after all these months that she was actually going to do this. She selected ’Single’ and clicked ‘Save’.

She and Dave had been together for nearly two years, but eventually his possessive nature and constant harassing had worn her down to the point where her friends hardly recognised the pale and sunken-eyed girl who had once been the life and soul of the party. She had hardly seen most of her friends for the last year, as Dave had insisted on reading all her sms’s and emails and had complained every time she went out with them, telling her she had to choose: him or them. It was only with the help of Nokuthula, her BFF and the one who never gave up on her, that she had had the courage to move out of the flat she shared with Dave and onto Thuli’s couch.

After nearly a week of just sleeping and watching TV, she felt the life returning to her and she finally felt up to going back online and going back to classes. When she logged onto her Facebook account, the first thing she saw was the 56 messages, all from Dave – some were pleading, others threatening. Her email account was similar – 3 or 4 messages a day, some pages and pages long, begging, pleading, cajoling and aggressive in turn. Then the phone calls started. At first they came once or twice a day, and then 5 or 10 times, sometimes at 2 in the morning. Eventually in desperation she changed her SIM and got a new number. What a drag. She also removed him as a friend from all her social media accounts for good measure, and blocked his emails. Thank goodness he didn’t know where she was staying, she thought.

A few weeks later, she felt more confident…she was making friends online and offline and she actually felt like going out. She had met a couple of new guys online, two of whom had told her they always went to Tiger Tiger on Fridays. So after a chat with the girls, who firmly agreed it was time for her to move on, they all headed out to Tiger Tiger for drinks. “Wait guys,” she said smiling as they pushed her toward the bar, “I have to Foursquare this! It’s a historic moment: I’m single and on the prowl!” They waited while she checked in and then it was margarita’s all round.

After an hour or so of chatting and laughing, she was feeling really relaxed and happy. Her eyes scanned the room, and all of a sudden, she froze. Dave had just walked into the bar.

“What’s wrong Thands?” asked Lisa, seeing the expression on her face.

“It’s Dave,” she replied, “but he never comes here!”

“Here, swap seats with me,” said Tanya, “he won’t see you if your back is to him”.

She did, but she knew it would make no difference. Dave had spotted her.

She got up to go to the bathroom and as she was washing her hands, she felt an arm around her neck. She was dragged across the floor, spun around and pinned to the wall by her throat.

“You’re MINE,” said Dave, “don’t know forget that. You will always be mine. I will always know where you are and you’ll never be rid of me.”

She struggled free, ran out of the bathroom and past her friends, with tears streaming down her face “I’m out of here guys,” she shouted. Thuli rushed after her, caught up with her in the parking lot. “Here, sweetie, let me drive you home” she said.

On the way back, as she calmed down, she started wondering how Dave had found her. It couldn’t be Foursquare because she had removed him, so what then? Maybe he had spotted her by chance and followed her. That must be it.

Over the next week, still jumpy, she began looking over her shoulder wherever she went. Not feeling like another encounter with Dave, she stayed home and found companionship socialising online, talking with her friends and telling people about her day, her life and her thoughts. Once or twice, she thought she heard strange noises in the garden, but she put it down to her fragile state of mind. No WAY could Dave find her here – he had no idea where Thuli lived.

Still, her state of mind didn’t improve. She kept thinking she saw glimpses of Dave wherever she went, but she knew her mind was playing tricks on her. She began jumping at shadows again, losing weight, and soon she was looking as pale and frightened as ever.

The final blow came on a Monday morning. She walked into class yawning after yet another night of disturbed sleep, to find Thuli and all her other friends glaring at her in shock and disbelief.

“What is it, guys?” she asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Um...” said Thuli, “I guess we didn’t know you quite as well as we thought we did?”

“What do you mean?” she answered, looking horrified.

“This!” said Bongani, the class clown, turning his laptop screen to the whole class. She gasped. On the screen was a nude picture of her! But it wasn’t her. It was her head alright, but definitely not her body. She would never let anyone take a picture like that! Scrawled across the bottom of the picture were the words "CALL FOR A GOOD TIME, THANDI AT 0721234567 OR COME OVER TO 9 RIDLEY ROAD, RONDEBOSCH."

Her eyes filled with tears as she wailed, “It’s not me! I promise guys, please!” She ran out crying, flew across campus and curled up in a corner at the bottom of Jammie steps, weeping. After half a minute, Thuli and the other girls caught up with her. Thuli put her arm around Thandi’s shoulder and shushed her.

“Don’t worry, sweetie, we didn’t think it was you, this has to be Dave’s doing.”

“I know,” sobbed Thandi, “but what can I do?”

“He must have Photoshopped that picture and put it up using a fake Facebook profile,” said Julia, who was studying computer science, “I’ve heard of this happening before – have you made a lot of new online friends recently?”

“Yes”, she said, “Loads! But how could I possibly know who on Facebook is a fake, I have 500 friends? And how did he find out Thandi’s address and my phone number?” she cried.

“Well,” said Julia, “If he did friend you on social media, he did it using a fake persona that would appeal to you…met any hot new guys lately? Once you accepted the friend request, he would simply pull all your information off your profiles.”

“This is just hopeless,” Thandi said.

“Nothing is hopeless, my sister” said Thuli, “the first thing we do is go to the SAPS”. In the meanwhile, Thuli had called her security company, explained what had happened and asked them to patrol the street 24/7 – they said there had been some strange vehicles parked in the road and had gladly agreed.

The sergeant at the police station explained to her that what had most likely happened was that she was the victim of what the police called cyber-stalking and that she needed to learn how to secure her online presence and be very careful who she befriended. He also assured her that the SAPS Cyber Crime Unit could forensically trace the malicious poster and prosecute him for wrongdoing.

Within a month, Thandi had secured every account she had online, changed her number and moved into a flat of her own. With the help of her friends and UCT counsellors, she was learning to deal with the trauma and get on with her life, while Dave languished behind bars.