Identity

How (and Why) to Secretly Tape Calls With Abusers Whenever You Legally Can

Many people who mistreat others don't like to do that in writing. In one-party states, you can sometimes make a record of their conduct anyway.
August 3, 2021, 7:18pm
Andrew Cuomo in June 2021
Photo via Getty Images

People are always going to ask you, later on and when it might really count, for contemporaneous proof of misconduct. Recordings are the most immediately helpful kind, for my money, if you can manage to get them. I was reminded of this today when the New York Attorney General made use of at least one person’s recorded calls with Andrew Cuomo in finding him guilty of sexual harassment and retaliation.

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A person doesn’t have to be the governor for you to be vindicated by a recording of their mistreatment, bigotry, or abuse, even if you don’t immediately do anything with it. I found this out firsthand a few months ago, when a man who raped me went on an apology tour among the women he assaulted. As part of that tour, he asked to have a call with me.

I thought about what I could possibly get out of a conversation with him. Did I think it was a coincidence that he realized he’d hurt me and was sorry about it at the very same time that he was facing criticism over misuse of his power in his professional life? I did not. I also didn’t want to rehash what had happened, and I certainly didn’t expect healing. (I hoped, eventually, to forgive him, but I didn’t want his involvement in that pursuit.) Thinking through it, I was able to determine one thing I did want: collateral. More specifically, a tape recording of him saying, “I’m sorry I raped you, Amy Rose.” So I picked up the phone, and I got one.

Because of my politics, I’m probably never going to involve the legal system in this guy having raped me, which he knows and agrees that he did. That doesn’t negate that I feel something familiar to a lot of other people who've been sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped, which is that I want it to never happen to anyone else because of him, and I want to be able to meaningfully help them if I can. If I ever again hear of him hurting another person, or deny having done so, I can back their experience up with my own. If he ever tries to hurt me again—which is something I am convinced he still might try to do, whether he seeks retribution against me publicly, or privately, or physically—I have at least three backup copies of my tape, ready to rip.

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You might suspect that recording someone is, by default, some kind of infringement on their rights. But in one-party states—states in which only one present party’s consent is required to tape interactions, regardless of whether other parties agree to or know about it—you can tape any call you like. (Please note, for your safety, that the very act of recording someone without both parties’ consent is illegal in two-party states, which are the minority. It’s a gray area if you are in a one-party state calling into a two-party state. Sometimes these rules have exceptions: California is a two-party state, unless one party believes the call will collect evidence of a “serious crime.”)

Most often, people aren’t going to call you to apologize for their behavior. They’re certainly more likely to call you to keep doing whatever it is they’re doing while conveniently avoiding putting it in writing. In the case of someone who harasses, abuses, or discriminates against you or others in little everyday interactions, which are so often where racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic behavior is expressed: You should, the law permitting, tape every call, especially when you’re dealing with someone who keeps their chronic discrimination/harassment out of emails, et cetera. You might not know what’s going to happen during these calls, or ever get a smoking gun in your tapes. That doesn’t mean it’s pointless to record and save them: You still might be able to help point to a pattern of behavior in a broader context, if you ever wanted or needed to. Could anyone have guessed that “the governor singing” would make it into the AG report? 

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So: What’s the best way to record a call, if it’s legal where you and the other person are? Before you get on the phone, make a plan. First: How are you going to tape your call? I used an iPhone app that’s literally called TapeACall, which allows you to merge a line recording a call with the call between your line and the other person’s. This merging process takes a few seconds at the start of the call, so either draw out your hellos or do a “can you hear me? I’m not really hearing you” sort of thing, if you have to. Practice that with a friend first to check the timing. In fact, whatever method you use, try it out at least twice with someone you trust before recording the real call.

Some call recording apps use audio cues to signal to the participants on the line that it’s being taped, which you obviously don’t want. Alternatively, you can avoid call taping apps entirely by putting your phone on speaker and using an external tape recorder or computer recording software like GarageBand, the latter of which I used to back up my call. If you go either of those routes: I recommend taking the phone call in a closet to make sure it’s as clear as possible, given that calls on speaker don’t always sound as crisp/intelligible.

When the call was over, I saved the file on GarageBand and TapeACall, stored it on my Google Drive and iCloud, then I emailed it to myself (and made some other copies for good measure). I felt, for the first time after that person raped me, real power over the situation. 

Sometimes, I wonder if making a tape of this really emotional and fraught interaction was the “right” thing to do. And then I bear in mind: The people who might criticize you for taping “private” calls are very likely the same people who would try to poke holes in an account of prejudice or abuse on the grounds that you don’t have concrete proof of it. Protect yourself first. Tape everything you can.

Follow Amy Rose Spiegel on Twitter.