VANCOUVER -- Women's Shelters Canada is calling on phone companies to adjust how they respond to those escaping from domestic violence, saying the costs of changing a phone number and difficulties leaving a shared plan are key barriers for victims.

The organization released a report Wednesday that looked into how Bell, Rogers and Telus reacted to a victim's request for a changed plan, and it is now making recommendations for how they can improve service for these vulnerable people.

Rhiannon Wong, the group's Tech Safety Canada project manager, said their report comes shortly after a national survey in April found that harassment was the most common form of "technology-facilitated gender-based violence."

Other forms include threats, location tracking, preventing access to online accounts, surveillance and non-consensual image sharing.

"This form of violence grows ignored, largely due to the perception that it isn't as serious because it's not physical violence," Wong said in an interview.

"It's really important that telecom companies are able to respond to this because illegal acts like harassment and threats through technology -- they're allowing this to happen through their services."

The report from April said of the 204 front-line workers surveyed between 2022 and 2023, 95 per cent said they had supported survivors experiencing this form of violence. It said 98 per cent had identified smartphones as the main device being used to harass victims.

The survey also said 44 per cent of shelter workers reported seeing family mobile phone plans misused against survivors.

"Violence and abuse through technology often prevents survivors from being able to access domestic and sexual violence support, or even be able to find affordable housing or employment due to an abuser's control over technology," Wong said. "This is because abusers are monitoring who a survivor is calling, they're controlling when they have access to the internet and sending harassing and threatening messages."

In order to test how companies reacted to requests for help leaving an abuser's plan, staff members in Ontario and B.C. contacted customer service agents at Bell, Rogers and Telus, Wong said.

She said the companies were chosen because they are the largest in Canada and are available in every territory and province. But, she said, their suggestions also extend to all telecommunications companies, not just those included in their study.

Wong explained each company was contacted a total of four times -- twice via web chat and twice via phone. Each time, Women's Shelters Canada staff identified themselves and said they were calling on behalf of a domestic violence survivor who needed support changing their phone number or leaving a shared plan owned by the abuser.

The report said staff all reported issues around "access, inconsistency, cost, requiring survivors to involve the abuser in separating from a shared plan, and requiring credit checks to set up new accounts."

Wong, who was one of the staffers to make the calls, said there "weren't a lot of options" made available.

"From the research that we did, we found that the answers to our questions really depended on the agent who answered our calls," she said.

"For example, one agent that I talked to spent most of their time trying to get me to sign up for a credit card, rather than support me in an issue that I presented them with."

The organization has listed a series of recommendations for the companies, including that employees have "consistent and clear understandings of company policies" and undergo training on how to respond to victims in a "trauma-informed manner."

It also suggests making it easier for customers to leave shared plans without authorization from the account owner and that they offer fee waivers in cases of domestic violence, without requiring documentation through a police report.

Wong said Telus, Rogers and Bell were all consulted, and their responses were included in the final version of the report. All three companies acknowledged the issues and said they were reviewing processes to better support victims.

Bell is quoted saying it "is committed to improving the customer experience and ensuring we provide appropriate interactions with anyone who contacts us for assistance." It sent the same response to The Canadian Press when asked for a reaction to the report.

Rogers was quoted in the report as saying that it was taking steps to implement a number of the recommendations in the report, "including waiving fees for victims and making it easier for them to be removed from a shared plan." It said it was also updating training for front-line service agents. It reaffirmed the same in an email Tuesday.

Telus, which the report noted was the only company to offer to contact the account holder on the victim's behalf to obtain permission to separate numbers, said it was "committed to offering support and assistance to customers in need."

"We encourage any customers facing these incredibly sensitive and challenging circumstances to reach out to a Telus team member directly so that we can offer a tailored solution to their unique situation," it said.

While Wong said the goal remains on shifting protocols for phone companies, governments can also play a role in ensuring safety extends to all types of technology.

"There's a lot of focus and pressure from government and the public to keep folks safe from online harm when it comes to social media, but harms like harassment and threats through other forms of technology, like our smartphones, is just as prevalent and illegal," she said.

"What we do want from government is to take all forms of tech-facilitated gender-based violence seriously when they're coming up with bills and legislation."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2024.