Imagine you’re being harassed by a cyberstalker. Now, imagine begging your cellphone provider to help you block his number for peace of mind and personal safety—and they say, “Sure, for $5 dollars a month.”
I used to think these kinds of scenarios only happened in made-for-TV movies — until it happened to me.
It started four years ago, when my brother and I bought a custom-made, wall-mounted bottle opener for our dad for Father’s Day. The website seemed legit and said that the small business owner sold his wares at a weekly street market near me. All I had to do was call ahead first. Thinking nothing of it, I called and verified with the owner that he would, in fact, have a booth that evening.
One month later, I received the first of many text messages from the man who sold me the bottle opener. Initially, he simply seemed concerned about the product— just “checking in” to see if it was still working — which was easy enough to ignore. But slowly, these unanswered texts morphed into more personal and uncomfortable messages. And then I received a phone call. And another one. And another one.
I foolishly answered the first call, unaware of who it was beforehand. He asked where I lived (I lied and said somewhere vague and far away), if I was still in school (how did he know that?), if I wanted him to come meet me with his van to show me new products (no thanks, I have to go now…). Immediately after hanging up, I saved the contact as “Creepy Guy from Oceanside” and proceeded to block the number.
Until four months later when I got another text message. I didn’t respond. A week later, I got a phone call. I thought I blocked this guy? Nope. Turns out, when you block a number through my cell carrier, Verizon, it only lasts for 90 days. And if you’d like to continue blocking the person, you must remember to re-block them every 90 days so that you can restart the process all over again.
I followed Verizon’s protocol for an entire year — and every four months, like clockwork, I would get some type of message from “Creepy Guy Oceanside” to prompt me to re-block his number. Since 2013, three to four times a year, I receive an unsettling reminder of why I look over my shoulder whenever a weird looking van passes by.
When I received the first Creepy Guy message of 2017 (first week of April, right on schedule), I was tired of feeling unsafe — so I decided to investigate my options. I spoke with two Verizon customer service representatives and one supervisor and they all told me the same thing: to permanently block a phone number, I would have to sign up for Family Base, a service for helicopter parents that offers Big Brother-style parental control options, one of which blocks phone numbers. I would have to pay $5 a month for it.
Verizon offers no free help to the harassee besides the 90-day block, though they very generously agreed to a one-time “change your number” fee waive. So, my options are as follows: pay $60 a year indefinitely and let my cell carrier profit from my unsafe situation, change my phone number completely (sorry, Grandma), or continue contacting my carrier every 90 days to block my cyberstalker.
According to a collection of studies conducted by John Carroll University in 2009, one in six women and one in 19 men in the United States have experienced stalking during their lifetime, with the average stalking experience lasting 1.8 years. Approximately one in four stalking victims reported some form of cyberstalking involving technology, like email or instant messaging; and electronic monitoring (i.e. GPS monitoring, phone tapping, or video) was used to stalk one in 13 victims.
The numbers don’t lie; we as a country have a major issue occurring behind our screens and our phone carriers are not protecting us from it. Verizon is not the only one. Other cell companies offer similar options, with full call blocking only available with a $5 per month parental control program.
My first thought was that Verizon must be breaking the law. How could a company not safeguard its customers against stalking, which in certain cases could be a felony charge? The answer is simple, though not at all reassuring: the wireless telecommunications industry has historically been highly unregulated, according to David Goodfriend, adjunct professor at Georgetown Law and former legal advisor to the FCC. “It wasn’t until 2015 that these cell companies were, by law, expressly treated as utilities and not private carriers. However, with the current FCC recently eliminating the net neutrality rules, we’re in limbo with respect to wireless data services,” Goodfriend explained. “The bottom line is that large cell carriers face limited competition, light regulation, and therefore have less incentive than they should to do what’s right by their customers,” added Goodfriend.
When asked why Verizon only offers temporary free blocking capabilities, one customer service representative said, “the 90 days allows for flexibility for our customers to make changes to their blocking list.” Because sometimes in retrospect, you may say, “I like creepy now.”
Economically it makes the most sense to pay my cell carrier’s fee, rather than, say, shelling out steep lawyers’ fees to take him to court. But from my shoes, spending $240 dollars from my personal savings account over the course of four years to block this number, while my stalker sits carefree as he sends me (and who knows how many others) distressing messages, is not really peace of mind.
Perhaps as most cell carriers are headed primarily by male executives, and most stalking victims are female, cyberstalking is a problem they’ve never personally encountered. However, profiting from your customers’ fears for their safety doesn’t change the fact that it’s complacency at best, or exploitation of victims who have no control over the situation, at worst. Either way, I say time’s up.