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Cell Phone Carriers Are Putting Domestic Violence Survivors At Risk. Here's What To Know.


By Ashley Broadwater
August 30, 2022


With a flight booked, Caitlin Eckert was ready to leave her abuser. But the morning she was set to go, she remembered they were still on the same phone plan.

The two had taken advantage of a deal earlier in their relationship — two new iPhones — which put them on a shared plan under his name. Not expecting her relationship to turn abusive (because who would?), this understandably caused her little hesitation at the time. But now she felt terrified. What if, out of spite, he disconnected and erased her phone number, the one she’d used for 15 years as a young professional, friend and family member?

She called customer service and tried to explain her situation calmly. But no matter what she said, the response from the other end was the same: Her abuser would have to make the call or show up to the store to take her off the plan.

“At one point, I broke down and asked the stranger on the other line, ‘What do I do?’” she said. “Which, looking back, I realize was both in terms of the cell phone plan and the abuse I was experiencing.”

Unwilling to accept the options provided, Eckert went to the store in person. Her flight was in a few hours, but she knew this needed to be squared away. At the store, three men greeted her. They asked if she was the main account holder; she said she wasn’t. “Immediately, they threw their hands up and told me that there was nothing they could do,” she said. “I remember feeling an immediate wave of defeat rush over me, as I knew that in order to emancipate myself from my abuser, I would need his active participation in the process.”

This is a far-reaching issue.

Are all phone companies like this? The short answer: It depends. “Cell phone providers have different laws and regulations dependent on the state,” said Blair Dorosh-Walther, program manager of economic empowerment at Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization. “Unfortunately, most states do not have supportive domestic violence protections.”

Many others have confronted this predicament. In one Twitter thread, people talked about facing or learning about this issue with Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, the country’s three biggest carriers. The hoops to jump through are never-ending, even for survivors who are able to go through the process required by their carrier. A Verizon Support representative replied to the Twitter thread, saying “I assure you that any domestic violence victim that receives an order from a court to assume responsibility of their wireless number, can do so without requiring authorization from the current account owner or manager.” In response to questions from HuffPost, the company claimed, “We work very closely with survivors to make sure they can get any documentation we request, and we make sure we don’t put anyone at risk.”

T-Mobile said, in part, “T-Mobile supports the Safe Connections Act that would make [being able to sever a phone line without the consent of an abuser] a consistent federal policy. We also support domestic violence survivors where they need assistance with device ownership and service costs.” Neither carrier said policies requiring survivors to produce court orders or other documentation have been eliminated, and AT&T did not answer questions about their policies.

But going to court, let alone getting a court order, is incredibly hard and a major barrier for survivors. The time, money, evidence and resources needed can simply be too much, making laws that are supposedly “helpful” far from it.

“Often, laws supporting domestic violence survivors end up creating far more work for the survivor than the person causing harm, which may be additionally traumatizing,” Dorosh-Walther added. “Cell phone contracts are no different.”

So what can be done?

Let’s start with what’s currently happening in terms of legislation. In July, the House of Representatives passed The Safe Connections Act, after a companion bill had already been passed in the Senate. It gives survivors the ability to remove themselves from a family phone plan without problems or fees, but has yet to be made law.

So what can someone in this situation do in the meantime? First and foremost, safety planning. “Safety planning is essential, not only for contract bifurcation, but [for] any step a survivor takes away from the person causing them harm towards physical and financial safety,” Dorosh-Walther said.

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