A New Jersey woman has sued T-Mobile in state court last week for sexual harassment, invasion of privacy, and other counts. She claims that, when she went to trade in her iPhone 7 at a store, two male employees rifled through her photos without her consent.
The men allegedly quickly found a private naked video of the woman, referred to in the complaint as “N.E.,” and played it for themselves. The woman was mortified.
Ars contacted T-Mobile, which did not respond to our questions.
“We take customer privacy extremely seriously and are investigating the claims,” a spokesperson wrote, declining to elaborate.
Ars also contacted Lorena Ahumada, an attorney for T-Mobile, who did not respond.
Justin Sachs, the manager of this particular T-Mobile store at the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing, just outside of Atlantic City, told Ars that he wanted to apologize to N.E.
“We know that it’s unacceptable, to be going through a customer’s private information,” he told Ars. “Any confidential information, finding out something you accidentally clicked on.”
Sachs said that he has worked for Executive Cellular Phones, the contracted company that runs this store, for five years, and is unaware of any similar incidents.
He also said that T-Mobile investigators reviewed internal surveillance video but was not able to definitively determine if the two men accessed N.E.’s phone. Since the incident, Sergio, one of men, still works at the store. Another one, Victor, resigned from the store in December to take a new job.
“How would you feel about that, if without your permission, someone was rifling through your phone?” Sachs tells new employees, underscoring that it is potentially a fireable offense.
In August 2018, a Wisconsin man who worked at a Verizon store involved in a similar criminal case was sentenced to five months in jail and three years probation.
Saved by AirPods?
In an interview with Ars, N.E. laid out her story. It began last November, just days before Thanksgiving, when she walked into the store.
She works in another part of the same mall and sought advice on a possible iPhone upgrade. Once in the T-Mobile store, N.E. saw another woman that she was acquainted with. This acquaintance, who worked in the store, directed her to two male employees.
N.E.’s phone was broken: the screen was cracked and the microphone had stopped working, so she relied constantly on her wireless AirPods.
The men seemed to be helpful at first, and one offered to do a trade-in for her, telling her that she could upgrade to a newer iPhone XR for just $90. They asked her to unlock her phone and disable Find My iPhone to begin the data transfer to a new device. She did so and stepped away to consider the various XR color options.
Then, all of a sudden, she could hear in the AirPods—the men may not have known she was wearing them, as her long hair covered the headphones—a distinct sound.
N.E. turned around and marched up to the men, grabbing her phone from one of them.
“He probably saw me coming,” she told Ars. “So I started going through all my pictures and my videos, and I replayed them. When you go to the camera roll, that video—you can spot it. There are so many squares, and there is one that you can see what it is. One video was very obvious what it was.”
N.E. described the video in general terms to Ars and acknowledged that it showed her naked. The video was only meant to be seen by one other person, her fiancé.
N.E. was mortified and left the store immediately in tears. As a recent immigrant from Egypt, she particularly didn’t want her parents to know that she had filmed such an intimate video and, worse, had kept it on her phone where others could find it.
“I didn’t want anyone in the store to know anything was wrong,” she said. “I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
But after a few moments, N.E. returned to the store and went straight to her female acquaintance and asked to simply finish her transaction. She didn’t confront the men. The transfer took some time, and she even stayed until after the store had closed until it was complete. The men didn’t approach N.E.
“It didn’t even bother them, as if I was nothing,” she continued. “I felt worthless because, hello, I’m a human being and this is something that’s very private. It’s like I’m not important. I felt powerless, because I couldn’t say anything about it in the moment.”
N.E. told her fiancé what had happened, and he was outraged. The fiancé called T-Mobile’s customer service, expressing grave concern over the violation of customer privacy and worry that this video may have been further shared without N.E.’s consent.
But after being passed on to another T-Mobile representative, Michael, the fiancé was ultimately unsatisfied as to the company’s response. T-Mobile had promised him investigate surveillance footage from the store and conduct further inquiry, but the company seems to have made no effort to do so.
“[T-Mobile was] treating it like someone had walked into the store and wasn’t greeted well,” N.E. told Ars.
Eventually, N.E. found attorneys and filed her lawsuit on January 11, 2019. In addition to T-Mobile, the case also names as defendants: Executive Cellular Phones, the company that contracts with T-Mobile to run that store; one of the two men, Victor; and the other man whose identity remains unidentified in the civil complaint.
One of N.E.’s attorneys, Christian McOmber, told Ars that it was difficult to know what the end result would be for a case like this.
“It’s difficult to give any financial estimate, because cases are settled,” he said. “In some ways this is a new frontier. Now the court systems are catching up.”
But, he noted, his firm would be aggressive.
“You can’t harass somebody who is trying to do business with you,” McOmber added. “We’re looking for significant compensation for her, because concrete doesn’t fix sidewalks. Judgements fix sidewalks. T-Mobile needs to take responsibility for their operators. They need to be responsible for their services, for the training, for the qualification, and their oversight, and here they’ve neglected to do all of that.”