Young stalking victims are 'reluctant to tell police'
Lives are at risk because not enough young victims of stalking are reporting it, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers.
New figures show women under 25 are almost twice as likely to be harassed or stalked, but research shows they are significantly less likely to seek help.
Victims and forces need to take the issue more seriously, says the officer in charge of the police's response.
Campaigners say it is vital that young women ask for help as soon as possible.
'Shame and loyalty'
Some 1.4 million people were stalked or harassed in 2009-10, according to the latest crime surveys for England, Wales and Scotland.
Women under the age of 25 were around twice as likely to be targeted as the rest of the population.
Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, who is leading the police response on stalking and harassment, said: "Too often young victims say it's just someone they used to go out with and they'll give up eventually."
"The problem is that sometimes they don't and the consequences can be tragic."
Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University analysed 5,000 incidents of stalking and harassment between 2008 and 2011.
Some 48% of victims aged 19-25 went to the police for help, rising to 62% in older age groups.
"Despite the seriousness of the crime there is a huge problem of under-reporting," said Dr Lorraine Sheridan, a forensic psychologist at Heriot-Watt.
"Often victims do not want to make a fuss. They could be embarrassed or ashamed, or maybe they still feel some loyalty to the person."
Three-quarters of young stalking victims who do report a crime wait for at least 120 incidents before contacting the police, says the research.
Jo, aged 20, had been going out with her boyfriend for 10 months when she tried to end their relationship.
"When I wanted to finish with him he started calling me 30 times a day and showing up at work," she said.
"He started threatening me and my friends. In the end he said he was going to come and throw acid in my face."
Jo changed her phone number five times, stopped going out and left her job at a local bar.
"I thought it would just wear off in its own time and it just didn't," she said.
"I lost my confidence with everybody. It made me feel like I could never trust a guy again."
Jo went through three months of phone calls and threats before she eventually contacted the police for help.
She was unimpressed with the response.
"The attitude was like, I was a young girl who was having relationship problems and it didn't really matter to them," she said.
"They didn't make any record of it the first time I went, and their own words were: I should pick my boyfriends more carefully."
Alexis Bowater, chief executive of the Network for Surviving Stalking, said getting help early on was key to tackling the problem.
What is stalking?
- Unwanted calls, e-mails or texts
- Loitering around home or workplace
- Following or watching
- Interfering with or damaging personal property
"The sooner people can recognise what is happening the better for them and for everybody else.
"What is really important is not to keep it to yourself."
When victims do come forward campaigners believe there is an "appalling lack of consistency" in the way they are treated by police officers.
"If someone has plucked up the courage to say they need help then they should never just be dismissed," said Alexis Bowater.
"This needs to be taken seriously right from the very moment they walk into the police station.
"In some cases it is now happening, but it's very much a postcode lottery out there."
In 2009, guidelines were issued to all police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to help officers identify the most serious types of stalking behaviour.
But just 19 of the 44 forces said they had put the guidelines in place.
"We have to accept very clearly that some victims of stalking are not getting the best service," said Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan.
"We designed these guidelines two years ago. We had to test them and get them adopted nationally by the police service.
"Now they are out there, this year we are going to make a big difference."
He expects more forces to train their officers to use the guidelines over the next 12 months.
The government is also hoping to improve its response by setting up a "national stalking group" made up of police, prosecutors and Home Office officials.