Tech torment: How smart home technologies are being used by domestic abusers

Experts share quick tips for enhancing your digital security.

Imagine your thermostat kicking up to 100 degrees or music suddenly blasting in your home. These are some of the new ways experts say domestic abusers are terrorizing their victims.

The New York Times reported last week that Internet-connected household objects like lights and thermostats are being controlled remotely and used as a means for abusers to harass, monitor or control their victims.

The news outlet covered the disturbing phenomenon by interviewing domestic abuse victims, their lawyers, shelter workers and emergency responders who reported how abusers are using apps on their smartphones to control everyday objects in homes to either watch and listen to someone or to exert their power.

"Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse," the New York Times reported.

In one account, a woman told the New York Times that she had turned on her air-conditioner, but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she didn't know why. A different woman told an abuse helpline that she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was at the door.

An alleged victim, who referred to herself as "Martha," told "Good Morning America" that she feels her abuser's goal is to "tear her mind apart, bit by bit." She asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity from her alleged abuser.

"And strip away my spirit, my livelihood," she added. "The intellectual fatigue is so difficult to convey -- not knowing which phone to check voicemail from, not knowing if my business accounts are private or not."

Ruth Patrick, who runs WomenSV, a domestic violence program in Silicon Valley, told "Good Morning America" that stories like "Martha's" aren't uncommon.

"I had one lady whose smoke detectors had hidden cameras in them," Patrick said. "Another lady had electronic locks on her door and she was literally a prisoner in her own home."

Brian Hill, a digital forensics expert and the director of training at Oxygen Forensics, has worked with victims of domestic violence in the past. Hill told "GMA" that devices are being used to harass individuals by controlling a home's temperature, turning lights on and off or changing the channel on a TV.

Hill provided simple privacy tips for securing your tech and protecting yourself.

Change all of your passwords

Update safety net features

Hill points out that security questions are usually “what is your mother’s maiden name?” or “what street did you grow up on?” These are questions that an abuser who knows you can easily answer, he said.

Victims of domestic abuse usually have advocates once they seek help. Hill suggests using their advocate’s information for these security questions, so the abuser would not be able to answer these questions correctly.

Not tech savvy? Educate yourself

For anonymous, confidential help, 24/7, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.