After HopeLine, What Are Survivors’ Options for Free Phones?

As word spreads that Verizon’s HopeLine program, which provided free cell phones to survivors, is ending, many local programs are wondering what options are available.

Probably the best option right now, at least for survivors who are low-income, will be the Lifeline program. Lifeline is managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and run by individual phone providers. The program offers reduced fee or free phones with data and minutes for eligible low-income individuals. Program materials state that, “To participate in the program, subscribers must either have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in certain assistance programs.”

As for other programs that collect, refurbish and give out free phones to survivors, be cautious when considering partnering with them. Older phones, often donated directly to shelters or through donation drives, often have old batteries. This means that a phone kept hidden in case a survivor needs to call 911 might not work when it’s needed. Ask how they wipe previous owner’s data from the devices, if they install a new battery, and whether the phone can only be used for 911 calls.

In addition, we know that access to a phone can make a difference for survivor beyond the ability to contact emergency services. A smartphone with data, minutes and messaging, can help survivors to locate housing, services, employment, medical appointments, court dates, and can reduce isolation.

The HopeLine program differed from other programs by giving survivors a new phone. The Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence summarized the success of the program in announcing it was discontinued, “Over the course of HopeLine’s phone donation program, millions of phones were provided to survivors of domestic violence and tens of millions of dollars were committed to support the important work of domestic violence prevention and awareness.” Survivors currently using HopeLine phones will be able to continue using them through December 31, 2018.

Creator of StealthGenie Arrested

A couple weeks ago, Hammad Akbar, the creator of StealthGenie, a mobile application that allows someone to spy on another person’s cellphone, was arrested by the FBI. He was arrested on charges of conspiracy, sales of surreptitious interception devices, and advertising a surreptitious interception device. Advertised as a way to keep an eye on cheating spouses, monitor teenage children, and employers, anyone can download and install StealthGenie to monitor all activities on a cell phone.

Other than the computer, the cellphone is one of the most used forms of technology. In fact, according Pew Internet, 44% of Americans sleep with their phones so they don’t miss out on texts or messages. We use our cell phone to organize our lives, search for information (let me google that for you), entertain us, and communicate with others – via text, social media, email, and, sometimes, even a phone call. For many of us, survivors included, our cell phone is our lifeline to help, information, and to other people. Cellphone spyware makes it incredibly easy for abusers and stalkers to monitor the activities and location of survivors through their cell phones.

When abusers are stalking their victims’ phones via spyware, it is 24-7 control and abuse. In addition to constant monitoring, abusers often engage in other types of abuse, such as physical abuse, threats, and emotional abuse. The result is that survivors feel completely isolated and cut off from any avenue of help. Everything they say and everything they do is monitored and controlled by the abuser. The trauma and the fear can be overwhelming.

StealthGenie isn’t the only monitoring product out there. There are many similar products available, including mSpy, MobiStealth, Spy Bubble. Some of these products are advertised under the guise of protecting your vulnerable children or protecting your liability by monitoring your employees. Some come right out and encourage users to buy their products to “catch your cheating spouse.” In reality, abusers and stalkers are buying these products to further terrorize and abuse their victims.

We’re glad that the government is cracking down on products that make it easier for abusers to harm victims. For years, when their phones were being monitored survivors would have to get a new phone – a very expensive step – simply to stay safe. Removing these types of products from the market means one less tool for abusers to use to stalk and harass survivors of domestic violence and stalking.

For more information about cell phone safety, visit our Technology Safety & Privacy toolkit. For more information about NNEDV Safety Net’s advocacy work on cell phone privacy and safety, watch Cindy Southworth, Vice President of NNEDV’s testimony at the Location Privacy Protection Act of 2014 hearing.