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When my husbands left his job this month, his employer refused to return the phone number to us that he has had for 20 years. It had been our number for 15 years before the job, tied to all of our accounts, medical records, and is the only contact number our autistic son knows by heart. He used it for the company for three years before the company decided to offer the "perk" of paying for the number and having him transfer the number to them. We never signed any documents and they never disclosed we wouldn't be allowed to have the number back since it was always used as a personal number as well. We would have had them issue him a second phone with a different phone number instead.

The second week into his two week notice they gave him the option of walking home from 6 hours away and they would keep his car (he was in a company car), or handing the phone over to another employee on the spot. I sent a message to the owner begging to be allowed to keep the number since it is the number our son knows in an emergency and crickets. Not even a respectful reply. The emotional impact of this has been tremendous on our family. What rights do we have? This all feels very underhanded.

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    You very clearly need to speak to an attorney. Find one and explain your situation.
    – joeqwerty
    Dec 27, 2021 at 20:34
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    Do you know what country you're located in? Dec 27, 2021 at 21:28
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    Yes; In order to transfer a phone number from one provider to another provider somebody signed something, there might not be an agreement with the employer, but something was signed to transfer the phone number. Otherwise the original provider would not have given up the number, to the new provider.
    – Donald
    Dec 27, 2021 at 23:04
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    No buses or trains? He just gave the phone away?
    – Kilisi
    Dec 28, 2021 at 0:33
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    From your description, it sounds like the company is using the phone number to bully you. It's not valuable to them, but they know it's valuable to you, so they're using it. It's likely that a simple letter sent by a lawyer to the company (with no actual threat except the information "This letter was written by a lawyer and it's getting serious") will be enough to convince the company to drop it and return the phone number to you.
    – Stef
    Dec 28, 2021 at 11:18

6 Answers 6

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I would talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. Anything anyone answers here is not legal advice, and in particular I am not a lawyer, and you haven't disclosed your location.

You should have investigated the situation of the phone line before accepting the perk of having the company pay the bill, but that is in the past now.

First, find a lawyer who knows your local laws. Setup a meeting with him and a company representative with the highest possible priority.

Basically, I'm figuring that a lawyer could characterize the phone number as an asset belonging to you, which the company would hardly have any written agreement to seize as its own, and even if they do, the fact that you and your husband were unaware implies that negotiation was shady and possibly void.

What you can expect basically is that the lawyer will shake up the minds of whoever is in charge saying the legal equivalent of "You have no need for this number, and a big fine or even a criminal citation is applicable if you don't forfeit it. So leave it be".

If even then they don't give up the number, you'll have to see them in court.

Remember that time is of the essence, having someone's personal number is quite close to identity theft, and might expose a lot of your private data and even bank accounts to however has the custody of a phone with that phone number active.

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    Also not legal advice (and I’m not a lawyer) but the company could claim it has value to them. For example if hubby is a salesman and this is the incoming number that clients and potential clients use.
    – Damila
    Dec 28, 2021 at 0:12
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    @Damila Also not legal advice, but claims of utility don't influence proof of ownership. My company finds it very useful that I own a car which I can use to drive to their office (as an obvious example). If this phone number is the primary contact of clients, the company can update their client's contacts, an expected business process. That the company desires to inconvienece you over expected business processes is a strong signal that they're abusing their position (if they are in the wrong) and you need an educated person to threaten the company on your side A Lawyer
    – Edwin Buck
    Dec 28, 2021 at 15:55
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    IMO if a company wants to control the phone numbers so they can replace it with another individual they should se up a land line prefix with a carrier just like all the other reputable companies do with call forwarding enabled, and change the forwarding to the new employee's mobile end of story. Dec 30, 2021 at 0:19
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Your husband screwed up. He should never had transferred that number to his employer. Whoever has control of that account with the phone company has control over the phone number. Even if he had kept the sim card, it probably wouldn't have made a difference. They would have called the phone company, claimed that the phone had been lost/stolen, and transferred the number while he was on his way home.

Hopefully, the only thing he gave back is the sim card, not the actual phone.

In any case, it's time to mitigate your losses. If all your other accounts are tied to that phone number. You need to transfer them to a new phone number right now. Most accounts have a mechanism to change your phone number, even if that mechanism is inconvenient.

Then, the next thing you should do is to contact all potential recruiters that have that number and tell them about the change.

And yes, your autistic son will need to relearn a new phone number. I know it sucks, but in terms of the law, I very much doubt there is a law that would let you keep a phone number (or even an address) just because you have an autistic son.

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    In Germany a judge would probably judge towards the family as the right/possibility of the son to get in contact with his parents is much higher than the right of the employer having an arbitrary phone number. Maybe they would have to pay for the change but yet I'm quite sure the judge would favor the family. As it is just common sense (and at least German law is widely built up on that).
    – Ben
    Dec 28, 2021 at 10:13
  • @Ben, That's interesting. Would such a judge also issue an injunction? Or would you be able to get a ruling on this issue in less than 6 months? I don't know about Germany, but in the US, there is a huge backlog of court cases right now. Also, would the judge make the company pay for the lawyer cost of the plaintiff? Dec 29, 2021 at 9:33
  • puh, afaik, an injunction would follow a court order unless there is acute threat. Here is also a huge backlog but I think a lawyer could/would ask for an injunction. Usually, the loser has to pay all costs. But in some special cases, a party would get financial and/or legal help provided by the court or the like. Means, also people without financial means are able to enforce their legal rights. At least in theory, for sure, no court or authority or whatever would pay you hundreds of lawyers to take down a global company. But at least some severe help so you might have a chance :)
    – Ben
    Dec 29, 2021 at 9:51
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If an employer owns the contract of a mobile plan then your husband should have got a new phone, which was for work purposes. It is misleading to call this a perk, as the company is not paying for your husband's phone plan, but in fact a work phone, which they allowed your husband to use his number on and use the phone for personal reasons. This is not standard practice, for example at the big 4 consulting firms of which 2 I have worked for you can expense up to a certain amount of your phone plan, as in the firm will pay you another x dollars each month (untaxed) so long as you submit the expense in the system.

It was a big mistake to give them the phone instead of the ride. I would have called an Uber or taxi and taken the phone. That way most likely you could have transferred the number to another carrier on a plan you have control of, here I've done it once and you have to confirm via SMS with your old carrier that you give permission to transfer the number.

What's done is done, here's what I'd do... I would call up the carrier and request a replacement SIM (avoid/don't explaining the situation), make sure it gets delivered to your address, which they should still have on system for that number. Sign up to a new plan on a new carrier and select the option to bring your number across. That way if they try get the number back it wont be so easy as it would have moved to a different carrier. Then complete the number transfer process using your replacement SIM. I actually think this is legal (at least in Australia I am not a lawyer seek your own advice) because there is a difference between owning the number and being the account holder. For example I am technically the account holder of my and my wife's mobile plan, but her mobile number is tied to her name, I do not own her number, she could get her own plan and move her number. We simply have a family plan which saves us money. If you can't do this you will need to try and sign up to a new plan with the same carrier the number is with and move it across. Again because the number is tied to your identity I believe, you should be able to do this, but I could be wrong. If you can't you would need to ask and figure out what options you have with the carrier, but I would avoid divulging everything unless you needed to.

Theft and Fraud Concerns

Judging by comments and answers this clearly needs to be addressed. Fraud and theft are different. Unless you are miss-representing yourself to the carrier there is no fraud. If you wanted to be completely above board you could explain your situation to the carrier truthfully and see if they will transfer the number to another account. Another person may not be allowed to have the number anyway as for example here in Australia you must show a form of identity before getting a mobile number so there is some connection between your own identity and the number. I think it is at least presumptuous to assume the company now has rights to the number given the husband had this number for many years for personal reasons, and was at least under the impression he would get it back when he left. Husband could argue the case situation is only the status quo.

Let's be honest dropping lawyer/judge etc. is completely impracticable for most individuals with cost and time and you wouldn't be posting here if you had the means. The SIM card replacement could be considered a trick but I'm just being honest what I would do. Chances are the company deactivates the number or never uses it - (In Australia I know that means you can't get the number again which is why time is important). I can't perceive any damages to the company for that reason so even if they were to sue me I don't see what they could get but that is my risk tolerance. I'd be also betting on them never even finding out because as I said the number is worthless to them and they will most likely get a new one. This could be considered theft but the circumstances are important. Morally I would be ok with stealing/taking my number back, but this is totally a personal decision and I respect that, just being honest.

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    This is the best answer: Speaks up for the usage of perk, no -am-not-a-lawyer advice everywhere, practical advice. Dec 28, 2021 at 10:59
  • A carrier has the protections to protect fraudulent number transfers, as that is a common scam. If they allow you do transfer the number based on proving your identity alone there is no fraud. Only if you were to claim to be acting on behalf of the company would that be miss leading. I'd simply be careful in the words I used to so I was being truthful. Dec 28, 2021 at 22:37
  • IMO a lot of these answers suggesting to go through the courts don't make sense before exploring all the standard processes you could try first. I suspect the money and time it would take in any country to get the number back would not be worth the pain. The OP would have to get a new number by then anyway to do banking, taxes etc. Dec 28, 2021 at 22:41
  • Thanks for comments, I've updated answer. I think the concern of theft is valid (fraud not so much as long as you don't lie). I disagree with the candy bar analogy, there is more to the situation. But respect that some people may not want to do anything that is/considered stealing in one way or another, I just am not one of those people. Dec 30, 2021 at 0:16
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It depends who has the contract. Phone services are governed by contracts between the subscriber and the phone company. If you are the subscriber, then you own the phone number. If your husband's company is the subscriber, then the number belongs to them and is a work number.

If you or your husband were using a work phone to make personal calls or do other personal activities, that was a serious mistake.

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    It was the reverse - it was our personal phone he used to make business calls for YEARS before they offered the "perk".
    – CFWilliams
    Dec 27, 2021 at 20:49
  • @CFWilliams I carry two phones for this exact reason - consider it for the next job.
    – Criggie
    Dec 28, 2021 at 8:55
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    @CFWilliams You are not reading my answer: the phone number is owned by the subscriber. If your company is the subscriber they own it. Did it ever occur to you that the subscriber can see all the calls made by the phone? That alone is reason not to be using a work phone for personal purposes.
    – Socrates
    Dec 28, 2021 at 10:01
  • There might be more than two parties in a contract. "subscriber", "owner", "holder", "the person who actually uses the phone", "the person who actually pays"... The distinction between all of those might be different depending on the country, and on the contract. I seem to recall that when I turned 18-years-old, there was a period where my parents were paying for my phone subscription, but there were both their name and mine on the contract, with a clear explanation that although they were paying for it, it was my phone number, not theirs.
    – Stef
    Dec 28, 2021 at 11:32
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My company has this perk for 'senior management'. Your husband would have completed some kind of form (usually furnished by IT department) to transfer ownership of the number from him to the company when he opted-in (it is needed by AT&T/Verizon etc.) Company IT has a similar form /request to return the number to the employee at termination (leaving job, retirement etc.) It sounds like your husband works for a small private company where there is no HR and owner makes up the rules (hand over phone or walk??). Your husband should not have handed over the phone (depending on whether he shared PIN, all the apps will be accessible to the new owner - many with personal information). At this point, an attorney is the best option; may be after one attempt to reach next higher up manager/owner. Contacting AG of your state as suggested is a good additional option (the company likely has violated your husband's privacy rights).

If your husband worked for big company with HR, contact HR, it is likely a rogue manager who equates phone with client list - phones today are key to banking, medical info, personal information.

Good luck - it seems your husband did not expect the company to go this low when gave 2 weeks notice. Good news is that they would be former company in the new year.

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Check with the service provider. They may have thought it's a company phone and you can still own the number.

In future don't give away personal items, taking a sim card out of a phone just takes seconds. But if it's a personal phone then don't give it, catch a bus.

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    Taking the SIM card out doesn't do anything. The owner of the account (the former employer) can just cancel it and request a new one. Dec 28, 2021 at 8:48
  • @JörgWMittag I store phone numbers on my sim card, unsure how it works in your location.
    – Kilisi
    Dec 28, 2021 at 12:00
  • It is not quite clear to me how the storage location of your contacts is relevant to keeping control of your phone number. But since you are asking: the way it works in my location is that since ca. 1995, our phones have their own integrated storage, and most people use that to store their contacts, since the storage on the SIM is extremely limited. E.g. I am the only member of my family whose name barely fits into a SIM contact (but only if I leave out my middle name). If I were using the SIM card to store my contacts, I wouldn't be able to store my brother, mother, or father. Dec 28, 2021 at 13:10
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    The question is about keeping the phone number. Taking out the SIM will achieve nothing. Either the OP is in control of the phone number, then they don't need the SIM anyway, they can just order a new one. Or the OP is not in control of the phone number, then the SIM doesn't help them because the former employer can just cancel the SIM and order a new one. Either way, who has physical control of the SIM is completely irrelevant to the question at hand, which is how to keep control of the phone number. Dec 28, 2021 at 14:01
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    Downvoted, this answer seems to be about contacts, not about ownership of the original number Dec 28, 2021 at 18:17

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