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

Depiction of someone entrapped between four corners

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.”

As you can imagine, this situation ensures survivors are even more controlled by their abusers, and in multiple ways. “[It] allows the account owner to access and control to not only the call log, text exchanges, etc., but also the victim’s ‘numeric identity,’ as many friends and family members likely know how to contact this person primarily via phone,” said Rahkim Sabree, an author who specializes in financial abuse and financial trauma. “If access to the phone is lost, many of the apps that rely on two-factor authorization will lock you out because you can’t access texts, emails, etc., without your phone, including bank accounts and social media, which deepens the degree to which the victim can be controlled.

Plus, the legal definition of abuse doesn’t cover certain forms of emotional abuse, for example, that are just as serious.

Some states are making changes, but it’s only a start. “Connecticut recently passed Jennifer’s Law that now includes coercive control … as a form of domestic violence,” said Cristina Perera, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks in New Haven, Connecticut, who specializes in abuse and trauma. “Currently, this law is only in Connecticut and California.”

Getting out of a family plan with an abuser is difficult, but not impossible.

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.

Creating this plan with someone at a domestic violence center or hotline, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, is your best bet. Otherwise, worksheets like this one can help.

Side note: If you don’t feel comfortable having the hotline in your call list at all, see if a friend can do the calling for you, or let you call from their phone. Know that the number will not appear on your bill. “Shelters and hotline numbers for those seeking help are blocked from appearing on records, so people can make contact without fear of being found out,” Perera said.

Once that’s squared away, here are some options to consider if your phone provider won’t make exceptions for safety.

Read the full article here.