Victims of sexual violence are being forced to spend hundreds of pounds on mobile phones seized by the police, prompting calls for urgent action to halt the billing.
The support group, Rape Crisis Scotland, has accused companies of making “deeply unethical” profits by failing to pause payments on contracts while phones were being held for examination by detectives, sometimes for many months.
The charity said rape survivors have been left without their phones for years in some cases while forced to continue paying monthly bills. Many have said trying to end contracts for phones held by police is a torturous, protracted process.
One woman supported by Rape Crisis Scotland had two mobile phones taken by Police Scotland in spring 2014, but the trial for her case was not held until July 2018.
Police Scotland has also been criticised for not having specific guidelines on how victims’ phones should be handled during investigations.
The suggestion that cases might not proceed unless victims hand over personal data from their phones – and how that data might be used by defence lawyers – has provoked fears women might be deterred from reporting attacks.
Police say they ask for mobile phone data from rape complainants when it is “necessary and appropriate” but Rape Crisis Scotland said there was an “apparent lack of process”.
To profit from these serious and traumatic situations is deeply unethical, yet we hear time and time again that survivors waste hours on the phone to mobile providers trying unsuccessfully to reach the right person to alleviate this burden. Sandy Brindlay, Rape Crisis Scotland
Sandy Brindley, of Rape Crisis Scotland, said that phones are often returned in an acceptable time frame, but some survivors have had devices held for months, sometimes years.
She added: “There are several key issues here: first is the practical inconvenience of suddenly being without a device that most of us rely on every day for our calendar, our contacts, our communication and more – with no guarantee or even reliable estimation as to when it will be returned.
“This increases the risk of isolation at a time where a compassionate support network is so important to a survivors’ wellbeing.
“Secondly there is the financial burden whereby phone companies in our view have a responsibility to, at the very least, pause payment on a phone contract until it is safely back in the hands of the owner.
“To profit from these serious and traumatic situations is deeply unethical, yet we hear time and time again that survivors waste hours on the phone to mobile providers trying unsuccessfully to reach the right person to alleviate this burden.”
Asked what procedures were in place for seeking consent to access a mobile phone, Police Scotland said: “The treatment of any information provided to the police by victims or witnesses is generally voluntary.
“On this basis, police officers will seize the item in a manner that is consistent with the force expectation to which any individual’s property would be signed over.”
However, Brindley said there should be a transparent process to reassure people.
“For any one of us, the idea of having your phone seized and searched – with no transparent procedural parameters around what is on/off limits – is deeply unpleasant and can leave a feeling of intense vulnerability,” she added.
“The prospect of having intimate and personal photos and correspondence on their phone accessed by the police can even put people off reporting in the first place.
“No-one expects that reporting rape will be easy and phones are often a necessary part of an investigation, but at the very least survivors should be able to expect there will be clear, transparent processes around the length of time that phones will be taken and what will be accessed.”
Police Scotland criticised over treatment of vulnerable informants
Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald of Police Scotland said the lengths of time mobile telephones were retained were specific to individual investigations.
She added: “We recognise the inconvenience this may cause and are working with partners to address this. We have proposals to introduce cyber kiosks that would help speed up this process, and in some cases prevent the need to retain devices.
“We are working with stakeholders to design and implement an improved method of capturing the informed consent of victims and witnesses.
“As a direct result of feedback received from victims, guidance was issued to our specially trained sexual offences liaison officers about liaising with mobile phone providers, on behalf of victims to prevent unnecessary costs being incurred.”
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In England and Wales digital consent forms asking for permission to access information including emails, messages and photos have been rolled out this year, but critics said this could stop victims coming forward.
The forms state victims will be given the chance to explain why they do not want to give police consent to access their data. But they are also advised that, if they refuse, it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.
The communications watchdog, Ofcom, promised to investigate. “We’re extremely concerned by these reports,” said Ofcom’s director of consumer policy, Jane Rumble.
“This practice is wholly inconsistent with how we expect mobile companies to treat people in vulnerable circumstances, and I will be raising this with mobile companies as a priority.”
Last month, Scottish Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, promised to do more for victims of sexual violence. Figures suggest it is the fastest-rising category of crime in Scotland and has the lowest conviction rate.
He met victims of rape to discuss the not proven verdict and how complaints could be handled better. “More than one described how being left in the dark about how her case was progressing left her feeling unable to move on with her life,” Yousaf said.
“Others, however, raised wider concerns about how juries make decisions and the verdicts available.”
There have been a number of initiatives launched to improve how rape victims are treated by police and prosecutors but support charities say progress has been painfully slow. Yousaf insisted things are getting better, saying: “We must keep the momentum going.”
Mobile phone firms insisted procedures to deal with customers who became victims of crime were already in place. “Thank you for raising this important issue with us,” said Vodafone UK.
“We are happy to discuss this with Rape Crisis Scotland. We have specific processes in place to help vulnerable customers and will always try to assist customers, including the suspension of charges where relevant.”
EE said: “We agree fully with Rape Crisis Scotland that survivors, who are already dealing with so much, should not have to deal with the inconvenience and cost that comes with having their phone taken away during an investigation, which is why we have policies in place to help our customers in these difficult circumstances.
“When a customer tells us their phone is retained by the police, we suspend their bill and provide another phone and number if needed.
“Once they receive their own handset back from the police, we’ll continue to support them, including changing their phone or mobile number if necessary. We encourage all customers to contact us if they ever need help and support.”
Tesco Mobile said: “Customer care is a top priority for Tesco Mobile, especially during difficult circumstances. We work to understand how we can support each individual customer, and in similar instances in the past we have offered a replacement phone whilst their phone is with the police.
“We have also recently launched our additional support team, who are dedicated to helping customers that are in a vulnerable situation.”
Emma, not her real name, told police her ex-boyfriend had raped her in May 2018. Since then she has been forced to pay monthly bills for a phone she bought him, despite the device being seized by police and held during the investigation.
“I actually had a recording of my rape, fully recorded on my phone, so the police took my phone but gave me it straight back the next day.
“But I had bought my ex a phone five months before and was paying for that too. After he raped me, it was confiscated by police, but it was my phone. More than a year later, I still don’t have that phone back. That’s my phone, that I’ve been paying for every single month since February 2018.
“The trial took about 11 months to get to court but the police told me: “Don’t worry, as soon as the trial is finished, you’ll get the phone back.” The rape charge was found not proven but he was convicted of stalking me and other offences. As soon as the trial finished, I phoned up and said: “Could I please get my phone back” and was told I had to wait until sentencing – and that was deferred for another 10 weeks.
“I phoned again and was told I had to wait until 10 weeks after sentencing in case of any appeals.
“I called again in July and August and I gave them the copy of the contract. I’d been in touch with the mobile provider, Tesco, but they weren’t very helpful either. I never seem to get answers and had to speak to about seven different police officers.
“They just kept saying we need to wait on a release note from the fiscal. The fiscal told me on about five different occasions they would get it signed off and I’d have it within a couple of days, or by next week – that happened about five or six times over a period of a couple of months. I was at the stage where I could no longer speak to them, as I was getting upset.
They said it’s a civil dispute now, so I have to take the person who raped me to civil court to argue over who owns the phone…even though I’m the bill payer and contract holder. 'Emma'
“I eventually got a phone call from police saying they can’t release the phone to me because it was taken off my ex, the person who violently raped me, and it had his data on it.
“They said it’s a civil dispute now, so I have to take the person who raped me to civil court to argue over who owns the phone…even though I’m the bill payer and contract holder.
“I think I have paid out almost £700 on the contract since Feb 2018. I’m not paying for the phone any more, as of this month, but achieving this was nothing short of a nightmare. I gave up several times.
“I was told they were doing it as a “one-off” because “we don’t get many people calling in with a story like yours”.
“But I don’t believe it. There are many, many women, thousands of women, with similar stories, dealing with similar problems over their phones and the companies need to have proper procedures to make things far easier and less stressful.
“It just depends whether you’re lucky enough to get through to someone who’s willing to do something that will actually help.”
This story was published by The Sunday Post on 10 November 2019.
Photo thanks to iStock/Blackzheep