One of the safer and easier methods of communicating with survivors is via phone calls. To ensure privacy and safety, here are some best practices when using phones to communicate with survivors.

Calling Survivors
Before calling survivors, establish if and when it is safe for you to call. Some survivors may have abusers who are monitoring phone calls, so allow the survivor to determine the call back time and process.

Leaving Messages
If possible, talk to the survivor beforehand about leaving messages. Discuss what type of information and details to leave in voicemails. Work with the survivor to help choose message options that best fit their safety needs and concerns.

If you have not been able to discuss safety issues before leaving a message with the survivor, leave a vague message. You might decide to include your name, the reason you are calling, but not your organizational name or even your phone number. Your message could be: “Hello, this is [your name]. I’m returning your call from this morning. [If it’s vague enough, include about what.] You were asking for some information. You can call me back between the hours of 9-5, Monday through Friday.”

Dropped Calls
Since many callers may be using cell phones, dropped calls may occur; or they may need to hang-up quickly for safety reasons. Determine up-front what protocol works best for the survivor. Will you call them back or wait for the survivor to make the call? This is particularly important for hotline calls. Let the caller know that you can’t call them, but they can call back at any time.

Phone Systems & Safety
The type of phone system your agency uses will have an impact on privacy and safety as well. Most agencies will be using traditional land-line phone systems, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems, or cell phones. VoIP phone systems have different types of vulnerabilities because they use the internet to facilitate the call and with that comes different sets of concerns. Cellphones have many different types of features that could pose risks to privacy. One isn’t more secure than the other, but depending on the phone system you are using, be aware of the privacy and safety risks that each system poses.

Using Caller ID
Most phone carriers will allow you to block your number from showing up on the caller ID of the person receiving your call. You can also do this manually for each call by dialing *67 before you dial the number.

  • If your phone system is set up to block your number on the caller ID, check it regularly to make sure that it still works. The phone company may go through changes and upgrades and might unknowingly unblock the line.

  • Some callers will reject calls with blocked numbers. If the person you are calling is using that feature, you may have to unblock your blocked number before calling. If possible, talk to the person you are calling about the potential safety risks of calling with an unblocked number.

  • Some agencies, particularly those that are under a larger social service agency, will have a different organization associated with their phone number. Instead of the caller ID showing up as “domestic violence shelter” or “rape crisis center,” it will say “Salvation Army” or something else.

  • Technology now has ways to unblock blocked numbers. Therefore, safety planning with survivors about Caller ID is essential.

Collecting Caller’s Information
As agencies, you could also be collecting identifying information about the people who call. How you collect, keep, and store information could impact survivors’ safety and privacy, as well as your confidentiality obligations.

  • If your phone system collects incoming/outgoing numbers, messages, etc., you should have an agency policy on why that information is collected and how long that information can be retained. It is best practice to only keep information for as long as you absolutely need it.

  • Hotlines that promise anonymous calls are particularly obligated to ensure that callers who call are truly anonymous. A person’s phone number can be identifying since a quick reverse phone number lookup online can reveal who owns that phone number and even where they live.

  • Many phone systems offer their customers access to call logs and other information through online accounts or billing records. When determining data retention policies, don’t forget to take these types of access into consideration. You may want to limit who can access these accounts. When receiving bills, you may want a policy that states your agency does not keep the details of those phone records.

  • Some phone systems, particularly VoIP, offer the ability to translate voicemail messages into email or text messages. If agencies want to take advantage of this feature, keep in mind that you will also have to take into account email and text messaging safety and privacy concerns in addition to concerns about voicemail. While it may be harder for someone to intercept or accidentally forward a voicemail message, it is much easier to intercept a text message on an advocate’s personal cell phone or to forward an email that has a voicemail message attached.