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

Trying to get off an abuser’s phone plan is harder than it should be, but there are options.
People in abusive situations are running into dangerous roadblocks trying to sever their cell phone number from their abuser's plan.
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost
People in abusive situations are running into dangerous roadblocks trying to sever their cell phone number from their abuser's plan.

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.

Document the abuse.

As a survivor and licensed clinical social worker, Eckert recommended “documenting stalking, tracking, accessing your private and personal information, threats to cut off your phone, accessing private photos and other means of abuse through the cell phone plan.”

As much as you’re able to, take screenshots, gather medical documents, videos and notes — and of all the abuse, not just the technological stuff. This can help with obtaining court orders and, hopefully, dealing with your cell phone provider.

Talk to your abuser about getting off the plan ASAP.

“If I had known this would have been so difficult to get out of, I would have started the process of convincing my abuser to let me off the plan for months,” Eckert added. (After an incredible amount of convincing and compromise, she got her abuser to agree.)

If you can’t leave yet, but are planning to leave later, you can also consider more indirect ways of talking to your abuser. Maybe you can make an excuse about wanting a different phone or carrier, see if you can become the new account holder, say you want separate plans, or not give a reason at all.

Again, talking through your options with someone on a domestic violence hotline first is ideal.

File for a domestic violence restraining order, or DVRO.

This requires filling out some forms. In California, for example, that could start with the state’s DV-100 form to request a long-term domestic violence restraining order — but there’s a faster option available, too.

“While DV-100 is a request for a restraining order on a long-term basis, the DV-110 allows you to get a temporary restraining order quickly before your scheduled DVRO hearing is set, which can be a few months out from the date of your filing,” said Rita Mkrtchyan, a senior attorney at Oak View Law Group. She added that in California, the DV-110 will probably be signed by a judge within a few days of filing and can help you get a court order. Check the process in your state to see what your options are.

You may not be able to wait a few days to sever your phone line, though. If that’s the case, Mkrtchyan suggested submitting your filed documents to the phone carrier, even before a judge signs off on them.

“Some carriers will accept this as enough evidence to leave the phone plan without permission from the account holder. This may take some persuading, however,” she said.

It’s helpful to have a plan in place before you file for a restraining order — though a restraining order is meant to reduce your risk, some studies and surveys show there’s a chance an abuser may retaliate and break a restraining order after being served.

See if your state has a law about phone plans and domestic violence.

Look into (or ask a loved one to look into) the laws regarding phone plans and domestic violence in your state.

“In recent years, many states have passed laws allowing a judge to issue a court order directly to the phone company, as part of a protection order case, to order changes to the shared plan that is in the abuser’s name,” said Deborah J. Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

She explained that this order transfers the billing to the survivor’s name and allows the survivor (and any children) to carry their phone numbers to a different plan. The NNEDV’s WomensLaw.org website has a helpful section on that, she added.

Vagins noted that “in the states where it’s authorized, [a court order to leave a shared plan] is often requested as part of the protection order process. Some states require the possibility of imminent danger before a protection order is granted, and proving that may be challenging.”

While not for everyone, and sometimes difficult to access or afford, protection orders can be good for some survivors. “By no means do I want to discourage victims from filing for a protection order and making this wireless transfer request,” Vagins said. “Protection orders can be a crucial part of a safety plan for many victims.”

Get a new phone number.

If you can give up on your phone and phone number, starting over with a new one may be the route to take. Perera said that shelters can direct survivors who choose this path to specific agencies that can provide free or affordable plans.

This is what survivor, advocate and resilience expert Jamie Wright had to do when her abuser wouldn’t help. It was a choice she didn’t want to have to make, but she’s been able to find silver linings.

“My therapist helped me reframe the loss of my phone number (which I honestly felt, at the time, my phone number was part of my identity, who I was),” she said. “She also helped me process and reframe the loss of some of my contacts as a way to clear space in my new life for new relationships [and] connections that aligned with my new life, the life I was beginning to embark on, free from violence.”

While this option may be the best one for some people, it’s okay to still be upset if you have to go this route. It will cause extra hassle, like having to email or message your new number to clients, co-workers, family and friends, but it may be worth it in the end.

Getting off of your abuser’s phone plan is harder than it should be — there’s no doubt about that. But please know you have people in your corner who want to help. You have a way out, and you deserve to feel safe.

For more resources for survivors navigating technological safety, check out TechSafety.org and the NNEDV’s technology safety page.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, chat with someone online, or text START to 88788.

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