Who really owns your cell phone number?
January 29, 2008 9:40 AM   Subscribe

My former employer won't release my personal cell phone number.

Last week, I was laid off as part of a restructuring at my company. My email access was turned off immediately (no surprise), and on Monday, my cell phone access was turned off as well (also no surprise, since they were paying the bill). The problem is that my former employer is refusing to release my cell phone number so I can get it reassigned to a personal account.

I've had my cell phone number since 2000. In 2002, I added it to the corporate plan at Company A. When I changed jobs in 2006, I moved my number from Company A to Company B without trouble. In 2007, Company B was acquired by Company C, and our phone accounts were consolidated under one provider. At no time was it ever suggested that I keep my personal number on a separate, personal account.

Of course, I use this number for everything. It's listed on my credit cards, bank accounts and tax returns. It's what far-flung friends use to contact me after months or years. As a renter with ro ommates, I can't be certain of keeping my home phone number, so this the only number I give out, and it's a very memorable combination of digits. So I don't, if at all possible, want to give it up.

In my job, I was not involved in the ongoing support of business customers. I rarely--if ever--received direct calls from customers or prospects directly on my cell phone, since most of our contact was in person, over email or via conference numbers. My phone number was published only on my business card, which I did not distribute widely. Furthermore, this number is currently disconnected, so even prospects that _might_ be trying to reach my former employer with concerns about a current deal will find themselves at a dead end.

I've written two very nice emails to the head of HR (whose decision this apparently is) detailing my case, and so far he has responded with a very short this-is-our-policy type of message, saying "It would be detrimental to the business if we released them." I'm not asking him to overturn the policy, I'm just asking for an exception on the grounds that this particular number is much more important to me than it is to them.

So at this point, what leverage do I have over my former employer? I have not yet signed the termination documents or returned assets like my laptop (they are based in another city), though I have already received my severance check. I don't really want this to get ugly: Except for the layoff (and of course, this phone issue), my experience there was quite positive.

So does anyone have any suggestions on what my next move should be? Has anyone heard of this policy at other companies? Thank you in advance.
posted by ad_hominem to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about straight up transferring the number without permission? I have no idea if this is possible, but wouldn't you be able to go to say, Verizon, and say, "I'd like to have this phone number ported over."?
posted by santojulieta at 9:48 AM on January 29, 2008

Yeah, your former company doesn't OWN the number, right?
posted by MrFongGoesToLunch at 9:52 AM on January 29, 2008

I had the hardest time with this when I quit a previous job, but eventually found someone in HR who was willing to go to bat for me over the matter and complete the necessary paperwork. Obviously that's not the case with you. I do know that as far as the cell phone company is concerned the number is the property of your ex-employer... and IANAL but the impression I got was that when you sign that number over, you have no legal recourse in getting it back. I sure learned my lesson... I have either expensed my cell phone bill, asked for an allowance, or just paid for it myself from that point forward.
posted by fusinski at 9:53 AM on January 29, 2008

Sue in small claims court. You'll likely get it back.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:56 AM on January 29, 2008

Go straight to the top. Call, then email the VP of HR or the CTO, and tell him/her what you've told us - you're a long-time employee who consolidated a previously-personal number under the company plan, and you'd like to have it back. Be brief, and ask for the VP to give you a single point of contact with someone who can help you do this, then thank them for their assistance. I find that often going to someone who has the power to say, "Make it so" outside of the usual processes is highly effective for these odd requests.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:57 AM on January 29, 2008

If you don't want this to get ugly, I'd drop it and get a new number. And return the laptop.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:57 AM on January 29, 2008

I deal with this at work.

If the company paid for the mobile phone account, they own the number.

We have been flexible when it cane to similar situations, but I see why companies refuse to hand over the number for risk reasons.

You don't have a lot of options here. You cannot really leverage them with anything but goodwill.

You're best bet is choosing a coupe people still in the company, as far up the food chain as possible to lobby HR for you, best an executive of some sort. HR will always say NO directly, since you don't matter any more. But as a favor to an executive, they will try to make that person happy, but giving in. That's what I've seen happen here.

Don't go into details when asking for the favor. Just say, "I really need you help. I really need the company to release the mobile number. I know it's a hassle, but I could really use the help."
posted by Argyle at 10:02 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wait, they sent you a severance check before you signed the termination documents? It's very strange they would be so lax in their layoff policies, but jerks about the phone number. Obviously the laptop is theirs, so send it back. Then cash the check and offer to sign the docs (which is very important to HR) if they give you your number back.
posted by chundo at 10:03 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the suggestions. I never seriously considered holding the laptop hostage, except in a fit of imaginative fancy. And I realize that legally, the number is probably theirs. I'll appeal to a higher-up as a friendly favor and see where it gets me.
posted by ad_hominem at 10:10 AM on January 29, 2008

My wife was in the exact same situation a couple of years ago. When they new phone co. told her they couldn't port the number even though she had been paying the bills because the account was in the company's name. She was able to sweet talk her former employer into releasing the number, though, so it can definitely be done. Yet another reason to not burn bridges when you leave a job.
posted by TedW at 10:23 AM on January 29, 2008

The number is yours, and it should return to you.

Analogously: You had a favorite coffee mug which you started using in 2000. You brought it to Company A in 2002, and they filled your mug daily (service), which continued to Company B and Company C. When you leave Company C, it's still your mug, and you should be allowed to take it with you.

Have you specifically mentioned in your appeals to the company that you had the number prior to employment with all 3 of its incarnations? Legally speaking, you're comparing who considers it to be the number to reach you, versus who considers it to be the number to reach the "XXXXX of Company C." If corporations can sue to obtain their desired URL, you should have rights to your phone number.
posted by explosion at 10:27 AM on January 29, 2008

The number was yours, but when you ported it to the company in 2002, it became theirs. At my company, you have two choices. Keep your number and have it reimbursed or give it to the company and have them billed directly. The person paying the bill owns the number. This is why you get a GrandCentral number. You can have it for the rest of your life and keep getting new cell numbers behind it.

I would call the head of IT and your immediate report and ask for their consideration. If you had no customer contact with that number, a reasonable person would give it up.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:33 AM on January 29, 2008

Explosion's mug analogy doesn't so much apply here. I worked for a company who lost a major client because one of their sales people was allowed to keep their (personal) number, which that client considered a major point of contact. Clients reach you on cell phone numbers -- only you use your mug.

That said, when I left that same company from a technical support role, I was able to wrestle my cell number free from them. Just be reasonable, and explain clearly that no (or very few) clients have that number as a primary point of contact for the company. If HR isn't listining, nthing finding a high-level friend to help.

I would seek the goodwill over the hostage laptop. You might even get more leverage by returning it before a flat out request from the company. Flies with honey, etc, etc.
posted by frwagon at 10:35 AM on January 29, 2008

If you have a proven history with the number and you actually moved it from Company A to Company B then the number is yours and not Company B's. They may have paid the bill but the number is yours.

Go to your provider...whomever that might be and tell them that you want your telephone number ported to your new provider. Simple.
posted by malter51 at 11:59 AM on January 29, 2008

You need to fax a letter on company letterhead to the company's service provider authorizing them to release the number to you.
posted by macowell at 1:21 PM on January 29, 2008

You need to fax a letter on company letterhead to the company's service provider authorizing them to release the number to you.

Yes, a criminal charge of obtaining property by false pretenses is just what ad_hominem needs.

Exhibit #947616 about why you should take advice on AskMe with a heaping mountain of salt.
posted by jayder at 4:20 PM on January 29, 2008

Telephone numbers are owned by the telephone company.
posted by gjc at 5:22 PM on January 29, 2008

There are a whole mess of incorrect answers here. Part of my job developing processes for a phone company directly related to business sales and I deal with this specific process quite regularly.

In 2006 when you transferred the number you would have completed what is referred to as an assumption of liability. You essentially waived all rights to the phone number and gave it over to the company. As far as Verizon is concerned the number is owned by the company and they will not move a muscle without the company authorizing the transfer.

You could of course sue your former employer to turn over the phone number but I doubt you'll get far unless some sort of agreement was made to allow you to take back control of the phone number. Most larger companies require that numbers are recycled to another employee or disconnected to prevent customers or internal employees from contacting former employees.
posted by Octoparrot at 6:05 PM on January 29, 2008

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