‘It was so terrifying’: one woman’s experience of ‘tech abuse’

·3 min read

Amy Aldworth went on a date with a banker she met through an app and she thought it had gone well after both agreed to meet again.

But before the second date happened, she received an unusual message from the man, whom she has asked the Guardian not to name, insinuating she had given him a sexually transmitted disease.

Confident she had recently been tested, she attempted to reassure him and thought that would be the end of it. But the messages kept coming – and the tone became more aggressive and confrontational.

Amy, 26, who lives in London and works in an NHS pharmacy department, said: “It escalated to him not feeling very well to him knowing I’ve given him HIV. ‘I have the symptoms of HIV, you need to get tested.’ I was getting these for weeks.”

The messages perturbed Amy to the point she decided to get an emergency test.

“I was so petrified, I knew I didn’t have it but I thought he might be one of those guys who deliberately gives it to girls,” she said.

“I had to get an emergency appointment at a clinic. The nurse sat with me and it came back negative.”

The man did not accept the result of the tests and, over nine weeks, he bombarded Amy, her mother, her grandmother and her friends with messages implying she had infected him with a sexually transmitted disease.

He used Facebook, Instagram, text messages and the dating app through which they first met to contact Amy and her friends and family.

“What disease do you have and WHY did you get someone to take the test on your behalf. Tell me the fucking truth,” one message read.

Amy did not use her surname on social media, and was surprised the man was able to find her so easily online.

She was also fearful the online harassment would move into the “real world” and he would appear outside her house or place of work.

“That’s why it was so terrifying. I didn’t know where he was, it was all happening online; I couldn’t guarantee that if I walked out of my door he wouldn’t be there tracking me,” she said.

“I wouldn’t walk to and from work without meeting my colleagues. I didn’t want to go out and shop.”

Amy said that prior to the harassment, she had periods where she suffered from depression and this episode acted as a fresh trigger.

“I felt like the world was eating me up,” she said. “My doctors were really good, as soon as it happened, they changed my medication, it wasn’t having the same effect as before.

“I had to go on very short course of strong anxiety medication, I couldn’t leave the house without having a panic attack. I also had a six-week course of CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy].”

With support from a family member within the police service, Amy pursued a prosecution, providing about 90 pieces of photographic evidence of different messages sent by the man.

He ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of harassment, in relation to both Amy and her mother, and was sentenced to a 12-month community order and subjected to a restraining order.

Amy was signposted to the charity Refuge, which drew her attention to the phenomenon of “tech abuse” – domestic abuse facilitated in part by technology.

She worked with the charity to develop a new website aimed at helping women improve their tech security and raise awareness over the signs of tech abuse.