For many families, joint cell phone plans are a convenient way to consolidate the cost of staying connected. Carriers love them because they prevent customers from easily switching to another competitor. But for survivors of intimate partner violence, getting locked into a family phone plan can be dangerous. The person who controls the account, oftentimes their abuser, can access a survivor’s call records and even the precise location of their device—information that can then be used to harass, intimidate, or carry out violence. And unlike a stalkerware app that can be deleted, survivors can’t always abandon their phone and number, which may be their primary connection to friends, family, and employment.
Intimate partner violence is a widespread issue in the United States: about one in four women and nearly one in 10 men have experienced it in some form, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the coronavirus pandemic, with tens of millions of people isolated at home, the problem is likely getting worse. In April, during the height of the outbreak in New York, reports of domestic violence increased 30 percent in the state. Unable to get help in person, many survivors are more reliant on their phones than ever before. But if they share a family plan with their abuser, that lifeline could also represent a serious danger, one that’s often overlooked, says Sarah St.Vincent, the director of Cornell Tech’s Clinic to End Tech Abuse. “Family plans are something that I had never thought of, and I think that they really are, in this context, the snake in the grass,” she says.
The clinic provides free technology assistance to survivors in New York City, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. Many of them struggle with the privacy implications of being on a shared family plan. “People would come in and report, for example, the abuser knows where they are,” says Diana Freed, a PhD candidate at Cornell Tech who volunteers at the clinic as part of her research. “They’ve left the abuser and moved onto a new relationship, new friends, and suddenly all of their contacts have been contacted by the abuser and there was no idea how this person got the numbers.”
In 2018, Freed published a study with researchers from Cornell, Hunter College, and City College of New York examining the ways abusers exploit technology. She found that family phone plans were a popular avenue for control, and that victims were frequently unaware of the full extent of what their abusers could access. “It was his account…he can see everybody I talk to. He probably had access to my voicemail,” one participant in the study said. “I just learned that somebody can access your voicemail. I don’t know what he was doing.” Participants reported at least 10 cases where the abuser gave a cell phone to a child they shared with the survivor; because they may have a legal right to remain in contact with their kids, Freed and her co-authors wrote, the survivor may not be permitted to take away the phone.
Even when a victim realizes their family phone plan is putting them at risk, it’s not necessarily easy for them to get off of it. Carriers typically charge an early termination fee for canceling a contract before it’s over, which can amount to hundreds of dollars. Some survivors can’t afford to begin paying for a new device and wireless plan on their own. If they call customer service to make changes, the representative could ask for personal information about the account holder, like the last four digits of their social security number or a special passcode, which a survivor might not know. Those safeguards help protect against things like SIM swap attacks, where hackers impersonate their victims to hijack their accounts, but they also make it difficult for survivors to disentangle themselves from their abusers.
Around a dozen states have passed laws or are considering legislation giving survivors the right to ask a phone carrier to remove them from a shared plan without paying any fees. But experts say the rules are underused, unclear, and too often put the burden on the victim to demonstrate their eligibility. “There’s a lack of knowledge that this remedy is available for folks,” says Stella Hirsch, a staff attorney specializing in intimate partner violence at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit that provides aid to violence victims in New York City. New York has one of these laws, but Hirsch says she’s never spoken with a client who was previously aware of its protections.
The patchwork of different regulations vary widely across the country. In some states, survivors are required to get a court order to be freed from their contracts. In New York and Hawaii, they only need to show some form of evidence documenting what has happened to them, such as a police report or medical record. The problem is that not all forms of abuse leave a neat paper trail. “That excuses a lot of abuse that doesn’t necessarily look like a black eye,” says Hirsch. Many victims of intimate partner violence don’t seek police intervention, and if they go to the hospital, they may not tell the medical provider the source of their injuries.
Revealing to a phone company that you’re a survivor of domestic violence raises other issues. In many cases, Hirsch says, her clients are approaching customer service representatives at local carrier branches in their own neighborhoods. “[The representatives] are not sufficiently trained or aware of this right, and how to proceed when someone is identifying themselves as a survivor,” she says. Abusers, on the other hand, are sometimes intimately familiar with how to use customer service processes to their own advantage, says Emily Tseng, another PhD candidate at Cornell Tech who also volunteers at the clinic. She is currently working on a paper about how abusers learn these strategies and swap tips with one another in online forums.
In a statement, George Koroneos, a spokesperson for Verizon, said the company has a program “dedicated to ensuring trained customer service representatives are available to help survivors transfer their numbers to a new account if needed.” He added that Verizon has donated millions of dollars to domestic violence organizations. A T-Mobile spokesperson said in a statement that the company has “processes in place” to assist and support victims of domestic violence. “We will always work with customers to address their individual circumstances, including allowing them to keep their number.” Teresa May, a spokesperson for AT&T, said the company has an “escalated customer care team” that handles all account changes for domestic violence survivors. “We have advocated for legislation across the country to protect the safety of our customers who may be survivors of domestic violence. These local laws make it easier to transfer from a cell phone plan shared with an abuser,” she said in a statement.
A more effective solution, advocates say, would be federal legislation making it simple for survivors to remove themselves from family phone plans. Earlier this month, the Clinic to End Tech Abuse called on Congress to pass such a law, and recommended it include provisions like mandating carriers have a remote process for leaving plans, and to make information about survivors’ rights available on their websites. That way, the process doesn’t become another burden for survivors, who are often overwhelmed with a laundry list of tasks, from entering counseling to changing the locks on their home. One nationwide regulation would also be more straightforward for mobile carriers to implement. “When you weigh the value of someone’s life and safety against keeping someone on the contract and the family phone plan, I think that it only makes sense for lawmakers to make this as absolutely easy as possible,” says St.Vincent.
In many ways, phone numbers have become a form of identity: Email providers, social media companies, and banks all use them as a backup mode of identification. Making it easier for survivors to move off a family phone plan wouldn’t solve everything. They may still be unable to keep their number, and there are many other ways abusers use technology to stalk and harass their victims. But it would mean one less hurdle for Americans trying to make the difficult, often dangerous escape from their abusers.
Need help? You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or visit its website at thehotline.org.
Updated, 7-24-20, 11:40 am EDT: This story has been updated to more clearly describe the relationship between the Clinic to End Tech Abuse and the researchers who volunteer there.
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