WHEN Louise* bought a security camera for her bedroom, she was hoping to catch her abusive husband in a compromising situation.
Instead, he hacked into the device and deleted the footage - then perversely used it to spy on her as she got out of the shower and undressed for bed.
He also hacked her emails and listened in to conversations on her phone in an escalating campaign of abuse.
Sadly, Louise's story is not uncommon. A recent report from Refuge found that, during lockdown, there was a 97 per cent increase in the number of so-called 'tech abuse' cases, compared to the first three months of 2020.
The hi-tech - and increasingly common - form of domestic abuse sees perpetrators use spyware, smart technology and even Amazon Alexa or Echo to track, stalk, harass and abuse a partner or ex.
A court recently heard how tattooist Jamie Robinson, jailed for four years for stalking and assault, spied on his ex through a hidden camera in his wardrobe.
Emma Pickering, who leads the dedicated Tech Abuse team at Refuge, says technology including smart locks, thermostats, WiFi hubs and home hubs allow abusers to find increasingly sinister ways to intimidate their victims.
“At Refuge, we have seen examples of recording and listening devices being concealed in furniture and household items, some so small you wouldn’t see them, and with battery lives of up to six months,” she tells The Sun.
“We’ve seen tracking devices attached to cars or installed on mobile phones.
“We have heard from survivors who have had their Wi-Fi compromised to remotely lock doors, effectively imprisoning them in their own homes; perpetrators changing the temperature on smart heating to cause discomfort, or controlling other aspects of the house remotely such as switching lights on and off.”
Police recently issued a warning about AirTags, which can be slipped in a bag or pocket without detection.
A quick online search reveals spy cameras hidden in household objects, including air fresheners, DAB radios and smoke alarms, are readily available for around £100.
Louise is among the victims who turned to Refuge when her partner’s tech abuse left her confused and frightened.
The 58-year-old, from Hertfordshire, met her ex 15 years ago and he moved into her house.
“He was really into tech and would often replace the hard drive on my laptop,” she says.
“He took charge of all the tech and the WiFi but he was very helpful, and couldn’t do enough for me.
“But then the cracks started to show. He would put me down in front of friends, say patronising things or roll his eyes at something I said.
“He'd take me to Barcelona, but halfway through the weekend would stop speaking to me and once he just left me in a foreign city. If I asked what I’d done he’d say ‘you wind me up.’”
Even so, when he proposed, five years into the relationship, Louise said yes.
“Looking back the warning signs were there but when you’re in it you can’t see it," she says. “I'm an intelligent woman but I was in love with him."
After they married, his abusive behaviour escalated. Eight months in he moved into the spare room, telling Louise he didn't want to have sex with her anymore because he didn't find her attractive.
When lockdown happened, Louise said he became physical as well as verbally abusive, pushing and shoving her - twice causing her to spill red hot coffee down herself.
“He would smash my possessions, call me grotesque, say I was a failure, that nobody would ever like me," she says. "I was in a living hell.”
He would smash my possessions,call me grotesque, say I was a failure, that nobody would ever like me. I was in a living hell
On one occasion, when Louise was out for just half an hour, her ex took a bra out of her wardrobe, masturbated on it, and then left it on her bed, covered in semen.
When she challenged him he said she was “mad” and needed to change her washing powder.
After further similar incidents, she bought a doorbell camera which came with two internal cameras, and installed them in her bedroom and home office.
“On one occasion, when I’d been out just 15 minutes, he defiled my clothes again,” she says. “So I looked at the bedroom camera recording, but there was no footage.
"I thought I was going mad. I had two-factor verification, which means I should have got a notification on my phone if anyone had logged in, but I didn’t."
Confused, Louise rang Refuge, and with the help of the charity she began to unravel the extent of her ex’s tech abuse, and how he was hacking into her Wifi to read emails and spy on conversations.
“I had a hospital appointment which came by email and I’d not discussed it with him. On the day he said, ‘Whatever is wrong with you, I hope you're going to die.’
“He would drop hints about private messages I’d sent my friends. I realised he was hacking my emails. I then worried he was hacking my phone as well.
“He would say 'you’ve put on weight’ and I realised he'd used the security camera to see me in the bedroom, getting into bed or after a shower.
“I felt sick to my stomach and totally violated. I didn't know if he’d shared footage on the internet. I’d never had anxiety but now it was through the roof. I couldn't eat.”
Louise got rid of the cameras and bought a new phone with unlimited data, so she could stop using their WiFi, which she feared he'd hacked.
She says: “After the first whole day off the WiFi, he walked into the kitchen and looked at me in the eye and said 'you f***ing b***h' then walked out. He knew exactly what I’d done.”
After two physical attacks, Louise reported him to police - but despite them finding dozens of hard drives in the loft, the tech abuse wasn't investigated.
“The last thing the police said when they left was ‘you need to put that doorbell camera back on’ - even though he’d hacked it,” she says.
Louise is no longer with her ex and is in therapy, but still fears she's being tracked or listened to in her own home.
Another victim, single mum Lisa*, told how her ex used a security camera at their front door to spy on her, after a bout of illness meant she was home for a long period.
"He started to say things like, ‘What have you been up to today? Do you think I don't know that you've left the house?” she tells The Sun.
"He knew when I’d been to certain places in the car, so I think he was using a combination of surveillance on the house and a tracker on the car.”
When she left him, he used tech to track her down to a friend's house - and even found her at a hotel provided by social services.
Even after she turned to Refuge and moved miles away, he found her son online.
“At the house, he had control over all the devices, using his email address, and he knew all the passcodes," she says.
“When we left, we had to get completely new devices and he still managed to find my son in an online gaming forum, even though his gaming name has no part of his real name in it.”
To her horror, he also managed to track down the area they were living in and she and the children “bumped into him” on the local high street.
“I was shaking, panicking, crying. The kids were upset," she says. "Mentally it’s taken a huge toll on me.
“Police, judges and family courts need to be more mindful of coercive control and covert behaviours as a form of domestic abuse."
An interactive hub on the Refuge site offers tips on security for household gadgets including Apple Smartwatches, Google Home Hub and smart thermostats like Nest.
Louise advises anyone who thinks they are a victim of tech abuse to seek help.
“If you think you're being watched or hacked, if they know things about you that they could only know by reading your emails, it’s probably happening,” she warns.
“Trust your intuition. Seek help. Don't wait because the longer you do, the more of your life they're able to access and control.”
For Help callRefuge’s 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247 or visit to www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk