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How to secure your devices and accounts after an abusive relationship

Apple has a new Safety Check setting in iOS 16 to help protect people dealing with domestic violence or stalking

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

It’s tricky in the best of times to keep track of every online account we’ve opened, each password we’ve reused or how many devices we’ve granted access to our information. These bits of routine maintenance take on a new urgency for people who are dealing with intimate partner violence.

Access to accounts and devices can be a way of stalking or hurting someone during an abusive relationship or after a separation. Taking back control of our digital lives takes time and an understanding of technology, putting another burden on the person who is already dealing with abuse. It can be overwhelming.

Apple has added a new setting specifically for these situations in its new iPhone software update, iOS 16 (anyone with an iPhone 8 or later can install it now). Called Safety Check, it has a way to quickly stop sharing information with people or appsand a page where you can review who has access to sensitive information like your location or photos.

We’re going to walk through the basics for a reader dealing with this common situation.

Q: My ex-husband has all my credentials and is stalking me. How do I set up a new phone and laptop system?

Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that each person’s situation is different and you can call an expert for detailed advice for what you’re going through. Start with the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233), which can help with advice and resources.

These steps are tailored for people who no longer live with their abuser. If you are still together or in the same location, exercise more caution as there may be a higher risk of them noticing or retaliation. It may also be easier for them to access your devices directly instead of remotely.

For this reader, a core part of the problem is her log-ins. As an Android user, her Google account might still be linked with an older device that her ex has in his possession. He also knows all of her most sensitive information, including her Social Security number. Here is where she, and anyone in a similar situation, can start.

Establish a safety plan first

Before the basics like changing a password or getting a new phone number, consider what repercussions there might be and how best to handle them. “There are two risks that come with taking action. One of those is the risk of escalation. If he suddenly finds he doesn’t have access to her anymore, is he going to come in person? Find other ways to monitor her?” said Toby Shulruff, a technology safety project manager at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She recommends having a safety plan, which might include important phone numbers and safe locations.

Document everything you can

Another risk of taking action is that you could lose evidence of wrongdoing. If you’re in a position where showing proof that you’re being stalked or monitored could be important, like for getting a restraining order, take screenshots of anything relevant like messages or proof they were accessing your accounts. If you’re documenting communications like text messages, be sure the exact date shows, said Hannah Meropol, an attorney whose clients include victims of harassment.

Use Safety Check on an iPhone

If you’re using an iPhone running the iOS 16 operating system, you can use the Safety Check feature to revoke access quickly. Go to Settings → Privacy & Security → Safety Check (it’s towards the bottom). If you’re in an emergency situation, you can go directly to the Emergency Reset option. It is a blunt, immediate tool to cut off all sharing and access to your information. It also cuts off all your third-party apps, resets your Apple ID password and lets you change emergency contacts.

If you have more time, use the Manage Sharing & Access option instead, which lets you review what each person has access to, as well as what data individual apps are able to use. Revoke any access that worries you.

Make a list of your accounts

Now is the time to make a list of all your devices and accounts. This will include your cell carrier, email account, online banking credentials, any social media sites and less obvious things like Netflix. Write down any devices you use as well as any you think may be in possession of the other person. You’ll want to pay special attention to anything that has shared access, like family plans for phones, Shulruff said. If you still use any shared services like a streaming account or Amazon, you’ll want to leave them and start your own or remove the other person’s access if it’s your account. If you use a password manager, change the master password if you’ve shared it and make sure nobody has your security codes or secret keys.

The ultimate guide to secure passwords for online accounts

Update passwords

Change all your passwords, even the ones for accounts you don’t think are at risk. Each password will need to be completely different from any used before, not just a word with the number changed at the end, and nothing guessable like a pet name or your birthday. There is no way around this step, but there are some things you can do to make it easier.

First, because you’re more concerned about a regular human than a cyberattack, you can choose phrase passwords. Second, if you have the bandwidth, we recommend using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password. These applications keep track of all those passwords for you, can generate new ones, and alert you when any are weak. If that sounds overwhelming, you can keep a list in a notebook but make sure it is stored in a safe place that cannot be accessed by your current or former partner.

Turn on extra layers of security

Two-factor or multi-factor authentication is available on most services in their security settings, and it means you’ll use a code or other extra step in addition to entering a password. If an ex has your password, they wouldn’t be able to use it on its own to access accounts. You often need to do this extra step only once on a new device. If you already have this setting turned on, make sure the phone number is your current one.

Change emergency and backup contacts

Many online accounts have an option to add backup contacts. These were intended as a safety feature, but in cases of intimate partner violence, they can be the opposite. Go back through your list and check account information settings to make sure your partner, or a shared email or phone number, isn’t your alternative. If you’ve ever set up legacy contacts, update those right away as well.

Lock down social networks

Gathering information about you doesn’t always take accessing your accounts directly. Shared friends can screenshot or copy and paste your posts and pass them on, and public accounts can be viewed by anyone. Check your friend lists, weed out anyone you don’t trust, and make accounts private. If you do share photos or updates, don’t include location information.

Our guide to every privacy setting you should change now

Cut off their other access

Most new phones and computers are set up to back up data and photos to the cloud, sync to other devices or use location services so you can find them if lost. These features can all be used to track you if someone else still has access, even if it’s just one of your old phones. This might be part of what is happening with our reader.

You’ll want to sever these connections and start fresh. On your phone and computer, check any location services for lost devices. Make sure you’re the only person listed as having access, and disconnect any old or unknown devices. On many apps, like Google and Facebook, you can see what other apps or devices have been given access in the past and revoke that access. You can sometimes see what devices or locations accessed your accounts and when. Take screenshots of anything suspicious.

If you use any cloud accounts for storage, like Dropbox or Google Photos, go in and see what devices they are synced with. Remove anything that isn’t yours and in your home. On Google Photos, make sure you don’t have partner sharing still on. Stalkerware, or applications secretly installed to track people, is a less common form of digital stalking, according to Shulruff. But if you’re worried about stalkerware, you can take your device to a computer store and have an expert check it out.

Start over as a last resort

All of these steps are meant to let the person keep an existing contact information, like an email and phone number, as well as hold on to social media and messaging accounts. Changing them is a huge inconvenience that could cut them off from people in their life. “Asking her to close off from people she wants to be connected to can be a lot like the isolation a lot of abusers want,” Shulruff said.

However, if the threats are serious enough, and if the other steps aren’t effective at blocking the person out of your digital life, big changes are an option. If you get a new email address, you’ll need to go through and change it on existing accounts or, in some cases, close them and open new ones. Use that address to create a new Google or Apple account for logging into your phone. Keep that old email account open, at least for a while, to access any accounts you may have forgotten to update.

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