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Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Thursday, 29 April 2010 15:48 UK

Would you know if you were being stalked?

Close up of the face of an anonymous male
There are estimated to be about up to two million stalking victims in the UK

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

The first helpline for victims of stalking has been launched, but how difficult is it to know the difference between stalking and the pursuit of a potential partner? And what leads someone to such extreme behaviour?

More than almost any other crime perhaps, stalking is in the eye of the beholder.

"What is OK to one kind of recipient is not OK to another, whether it is five calls a week, 15 calls a day or 25 calls an hour," says Dr Lorraine Sheridan, a forensic psychologist specialising in stalking and harassment.

"Nobody knows when stalking begins - there is no cut off point."

That said, according to Dr Sheridan everyone has their tipping point - when a pursuer's avid interest becomes unbearable.

Clare did not know where to turn to, she didn't understand what was happening or recognise it as stalking- only that her world was caving in
Tricia Bernal
Mother of murdered victim

"The best definition of stalking is when someone is being inappropriate - when it's unwanted, repeated and intrusive - and makes the recipient feel very uncomfortable or fearful," she says.

The recipient is most often female. Some 83% of stalking victims are women, she says.

And while the popular conception of stalking behaviour is perhaps of a spurned lover, persistently pestering their ex-partner with nuisance phone calls, it can take a variety of forms.

About half of all stalking cases, says Dr Sheridan, are made up of infatuations, delusional fixations (often directed towards a celebrity or person in authority) and sadistic stalking (where the victim's life is seen as quarry and prey).

But what she finds most frightening is how the most unlikely people - successful, happy and mentally balanced folk - can slip into stalking behaviour.

Clare Bernal
Clare Bernal was shot dead by her ex-boyfriend in Harvey Nichols in 2005

But if awareness of the issue is somewhat confused, the opening of the first national helpline may lead to greater public understanding and give victims more confidence to act.

The helpline is a joint enterprise involving campaign groups Network for Surviving Stalking, Protection Against Stalking and Suzy Lamplugh Trust, and the police.

Those working for the helpline say that too often victims are reluctant to act; unsure of whether they are being stalked or just avidly pursued.

A survey in 2009 showed a third of victims wait until there had been at least 100 incidents before they approach the police, according to Jane Harvey, from Network For Surviving Stalking.

Many victims are afraid to speak up, she says.

"Often they don't want to 'make a fuss'... they could be embarrassed or ashamed, or maybe they still feel some loyalty to the person.

"Sometimes they are petrified that if they 'take a stand' against their stalker, their life and the safety of their loved ones could be put in jeopardy."

I'd get 30 bouquets of flowers in a month. Friends would say 'Aren't you lucky' - but I'd be terrified
Tracey Morgan
Victim of stalking

Tracey Morgan, who was stalked for more than eight years by a "loner" colleague, says in her case many incidents did not seem threatening to an outsider, but left her "struggling to retain her sanity".

"I'd get 30 bouquets of flowers in a month. Friends would say 'aren't you lucky' - but I'd be terrified."

Her stalker then started bombarding her with calls, bugged and broke into her house, stole property, followed her, sent her anonymous notes and left her in a constant state of terror.

"My biggest message would be don't listen to any self doubt, trust your instinct and act on it. If you think you are being stalked, keep a diary, carry a camera, pick up the phone, go to the police."

But while campaign groups are raising the profile of stalking, Ms Morgan says the authorities also need to be harsher on it.

"Sentences need to be tougher - a couple of weeks' probation or community service is not sending the right message."

Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, who is leading the police response on stalking and harassment, says the UK is one of the only countries in Europe to have legislation that deals with stalking.

He says the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 allows a stalker to be sent to prison for up to five years for harassment alone - and because the perpetrator is often convicted of assault or criminal damage too, it is often used in conjunction with other legislation.

But he says the 1997 Act does not mention the word stalking, and "given its horrific nature, it might be time to have a discussion with the CPS and Ministry of Justice to identify whether there should be a specific section".

Tricia Bernal knows more than most about the potential damage a stalker can wreak - her daughter, Clare, was killed by one while working in a department store in London.

Her stalker was an ex-boyfriend who could not come to terms with the end of their relationship.

She believes a dedicated helpline could have made the outcome a "completely different ball game" for her daughter.

"Clare did not know where to turn to, she didn't understand what was happening, didn't recognise it as stalking as such - only that her world was caving in.

"Right to the very end she always felt concerned people out there thought she was making a mountain out of molehill."

Mrs Bernal says there is "no such thing as medium to low risk" with stalkers.

"If your life is being affected and you are having to change your normal life, that it is stalking and no-one has the right to do that to someone else."

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