Cybersecurity for Co-Parents: How You Can Protect Yourself in the Digital World
Technology is intertwined in your life just as much as your current or former spouse was. There are many ways a bitter or angry co-parent could make your life difficult or miserable. But there are also simple ways to prevent these problems—and to tackle them if they do happen.
This information is especially important if your co-parent is abusive. A mildly tech-savvy person could use various technologies to stalk you. Protecting yourself digitally is a crucial part of creating a safety plan.
But cyberstalking isn’t limited to abusers.
Cyberstalking—which means two or more digital events that cause you significant emotional distress—is illegal. If you find yourself a victim of cyberstalking, you have resources you can turn to.
Who could be a cyber offender in co-parenting?
Any former partner who is angry about the split and eager to do something about it could become a cyber offender. Whether there was physical abuse or just emotional anger, cyberstalking is one way conflict can play out.
Most offenders don’t have a computer background. It’s very easy to ask Google, “How do I stalk my partner?” or “How do I listen to my partner’s phone calls?” There are articles, forum discussions, and even step-by-step YouTube videos showing how it’s done.
The vast majority of co-parents, even those who are upset, do not become cyber offenders.
5 digital dangers for co-parents—and how to counteract them
These are the major ways a co-parent's cybersecurity can be threatened. If you’re aware of them, you can more easily spot them and prevent them.
Knowing each other’s security questions
It’s easy to lose sight of this, but you and your partner once liked each other, maybe even loved each other and shared a life. You may know each other deeply—and that can include knowing the name of your favorite elementary school teacher or the make and model of your first car. If you were married a while, it can be easy to guess each other’s security question answers, which means your former partner can bypass passwords.
I worked on a case with a woman who was involved in a custody battle. CPS was scheduled to examine her house to make sure it was a safe, livable environment. But her former husband called the utility companies that morning. Even though he was no longer listed on the accounts, he gave the correct responses to her security questions, and then instructed them to turn off the power and water. When CPS arrived, the mother’s home was not a safe, healthy environment.
So change your security questions on all your important accounts. Choose new questions with answers that your former partner wouldn’t know.
GPS Trackers like AirTags, Tiles, and OnStar
It’s pretty easy to track someone’s location by hiding a GPS tracker in their purse, bag, or car. But there are also easy ways to discover those trackers.
Apple has developed anti-stalking measures; if someone drops an AirTag in your bag and you have an iPhone, you will receive an alert. You can then prompt the AirTag to make a noise so you can find it.
If you have an Android, however, you won’t receive these alerts. Download Apple’s Tracker Detect app, then prompt it to scan for an AirTag attached to your phone. If it detects a tracker, you can prompt the tracker to make a noise. Download the Tile app to scan for Tiles.
If you suspect a tracker and your phone detects one, contact law enforcement.
Another important type of tracker may be built into your car, like OnStar, a General Motors vehicle feature that can be used to track your location. I once worked on a case where a husband called OnStar and convinced them to disclose the location of his wife’s car. They did disclose it—and the car was at a domestic violence shelter.
Spyware that lets your co-parent clone your phone
For as little as $7, someone could get an app that can clone your phone. They could then see your location, read your texts, and snoop on your online dating. They could even use your microphone to listen in on your surroundings.
How to detect whether your phone has spyware
Check your data usage over the past few months—it will double if it is cloned.
If your phone is hot when you pick it up—but you haven’t used or touched it in a while—it might be cloned.
If your battery suddenly drains twice as fast as it used to, that might be because it’s serving two phones.
If you hear static 60 seconds after every call begins, someone might be listening in.
What do to if you suspect your phone has spyware
A factory reset will not do the trick. As soon as you sign into your email or connect to the cloud, everything—including spyware—will be right back in its original place.
Instead, go to your mobile carrier and say, “I think there’s spyware on my phone or in the cloud.” They’re very aware of spyware as a problem and should take you seriously. Ask them to screenshot any spyware they find for documentation.
A simple alternative: Download Avast One, a spyware scanner and remover app. I’m not affiliated with Avast, but I have it on all my devices. The free version is fine for our purposes here. It will scan your device and alert you if it finds any spyware. Take a screenshot for documentation! Then Avast will remove the spyware.
Other good programs include Avira, MacAfee, and Norton.
Spoofing or social engineering
For example, someone could pose as a Verizon representative. They could even change their caller ID so it says “Verizon” when it shows up on your phone. Then they could tell you, “We’ve had a data breach. We need to do a browser reset on your phone—just go to this web page...”
To protect yourself against spoofing, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommends never giving personal or account information in response to an unexpected call—and don’t even say “yes” or “no.” If the call sounds important, hang up, Google the company or agency, and call back through their official phone number.
A spoofer could also pose as you. Free spoofing programs let you create fake texts, WhatsApp messages, and social media DMs. Other programs let you change your voice. Your co-parent could tell the judge that you texted and called 14 times and said horrible things each time. (If that happens, compare your phone bills—the discrepancy will be clear.)
One easy way to prevent spoofing is to use a specialized app for all communication with your co-parent, like OurFamilyWizard. This app gives you a safe and secure closed messaging system designed for co-parenting. Unlike basic texts or emails, messages on OurFamilyWizard can’t be changed or spoofed.
Scraping metadata from photos
This one is simple: Every digital photograph carries tiny pieces of information, called metadata, about what type of phone or camera took the picture, what direction you were facing, and your exact GPS coordinates when you took the picture.
So if you post a picture of your son at his birthday party, your co-parent could retrieve that information and discover where you are.
OurFamilyWizard has a Journal feature that lets you share photos—but it scrubs the metadata, so your location is not automatically detectable.
10 more tips to help co-parents stay safe online
Cyber offenders can get creative, so if you have suspicions, it’s helpful to look at a lot of different angles.
1. Trust your instincts
If you suspect your co-parent knows too much about your day-to-day, it is possible that they’re monitoring your activities or devices.
Sometimes this suspicion is framed as a mental health issue. “They’re crazy, I couldn’t turn off the utilities!” Offenders do this because if you seem weaker—or even feel weaker as a result of the accusation—then the offender seems more powerful. So if anyone gives you a hard time by using this tactic, stay strong. If you suspect foul play, trust your instincts, and verify your suspicion.
2. Change your passwords
Change all account passwords for apps or features that might give away your location or activities, or that control your access to important services.
Do not use dictionary words! It’s very easy to get a program that runs through a dictionary and unlocks those passwords in minutes. Instead, think of a sentence, song lyric, line of poetry, famous quote, or anything else you have memorized. Take the first letter of each word, and include a number and a special character.
For example, if your quote was “You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one” (John Lennon), then your password could be YmsIad,bInto1. Don’t use this password—come up with your own! And choose a phrase or quote that your co-parent wouldn’t guess.
Password managers are safe—if your phone is safe. If your phone is cloned, an offender can pick up your password when you type it. Use biometrics (face ID, fingerprint) whenever possible.
3. Check your smartphone settings
In your phone’s settings menu, check the location services and see if the phone is giving away your location through Find My Friends or a similar app or feature.
Turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it. If it’s on, an offender could use it to monitor you or even install malicious software on your phone.
4. Use a safer computer
If an abusive person has access to your computer, they might be monitoring your computer activities. If possible, try to use a safer computer when you look for help, travel plans, a new place to live, etc. It may be safer to use the computer at the library or community center.
5. Search for your name on the internet
By using popular search engines such as Google and Bing, you can see what elements of your personal information may be public. The fastest way to search is by adding quotations before and after your name (“Susan Smith”), followed by your state or city. This will help avoid finding irrelevant information from duplicate names. Don’t forget to also view the “images” portion of the search engine to see what pictures may be public.
6. Check your social media
Check your safety and privacy settings for all your social media accounts. Make sure your location and personal information are not being shared.
7. Ask about your records and data
Many court systems and government agencies, like the post office, publish records online. Ask these agencies how they protect or publish your records and request that they seal or restrict access to your files to protect your safety.
8. Consider alternative phone services
Phone services such as Google Voice may be a better alternative for keeping your personal phone numbers safe. You can sign up for a phone number and have calls and texts to that number forwarded to your phone. That way, if your phone number is compromised, you can log in and change one phone number rather than having to contact the phone company.
Unlike other communication methods, you don’t need to share your email address or phone number with your co-parent to send messages to them through OurFamilyWizard.
9. Use a VPN (virtual private network)
A VPN protects your phone or computer when you are on public wi-fi. If you’re reading at Starbucks or walking around the mall using a public network, offenders can see everything you’re doing. If you make a purchase on your phone or computer, an offender can even see your credit card info or banking details.
You can find many VPN options in the App Store or Play Store.
10. Install Bark on your child’s phone
When you get divorced, your children are at risk online, too—and not necessarily because of your co-parent. A child of divorce often feels like they bear the blame, and they become vulnerable to nefarious influences. I used to work in human trafficking, and I’ve seen it first-hand. Consider using an app like Bark, which monitors your child’s phone for signs of depression, cyberbullying, and online predators. I’m not affiliated, just a fan.
Stay safe, but don’t panic
Most of these scenarios are rare. Although it can be helpful to be aware of the possibilities, there’s no need to panic over them unless you have a strong gut instinct and/or evidence that you might be being cyberstalked.
Even if you suspect something, don’t panic. Follow the guidelines in this article, and if necessary, contact law enforcement. Again, cyberstalking is illegal.
Stay safe out there.
After being recruited by the FBI, Steven Bradley graduated the FBI Academy with honors and began combating many types of technology crimes including cyberstalking, financial exploitation, and apprehending child predators.
Later in his career, Steven worked with domestic violence/sexual assault centers on bridging the gaps between law enforcement and community partners to better support survivors and victims.
As part of the OurFamilyWizard professional team, Steven further promotes the empowerment and healthy communication between separated and divorced parents via technology.