Washington News Bureau

‘A horrible feeling:’ Domestic violence survivor says connected car was used to track her

WASHINGTON — Christine Dowdall said she knew it was time to leave her husband in 2022 after a violent fight.

“Our last confrontation was pretty brutal,” Dowdall said. “Thinking, ‘God what am I going to do? If I stay here, this is not going to end well.’”

Deputies at the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana investigated the domestic violence incident. Records show they reported seeing “multiple areas of discoloration” on Dowdall’s arms and face.

Dowdall got an order of protection and left the abusive marriage behind.

But even after getting away, Dowdall said she would get text messages from her estranged husband, then a DEA agent, taunting her with clues that he knew exactly where she was and sometimes who she was with.

“I kept wondering, how in the world does he know where I’m at?” Dowdall said.

Dowdall said she soon noticed a strange message pop up in her car that said: “An authorized location-based service was turned on using Mbrace.”

It turned out to be a location tracker through her car. She then realized her estranged husband was using her Mercedes-Benz to trace her.

“It’s a horrible feeling knowing somebody knows your every move,” Dowdall said.

Records show a judge granted Dowdall “exclusive use” of the car during divorce proceedings.

Dowdall and Detective Kelly Downey said they repeatedly called Mercedes to try and get her estranged husband removed from the car’s connected system. They said multiple requests to Mercedes went nowhere because he was the legally registered owner.

“They said he had to be the one to disconnect it and that sort of thing and I said ‘Well, that’s going to be kind of tough because I can’t contact him and I don’t want to contact him because we’re separated over a domestic abuse charge and I’m telling you he’s stalking me on this car,’” Dowdall said.


A spokesperson for Mercedes told our Washington News Bureau in a statement:

“This is a rather unfortunate case in which the MBrace system (this was the name of the system used when the subject vehicle was built, now MercedesMe) was used beyond its intended purpose… We can acknowledge that upon contact with MBUSA, we worked with our provider partner (Verizon) who reportedly terminated the account within days of the initial contact with us. We cannot provide more specific details of individual customer matters, per company policy. However, we do consider exigent circumstances on an individual basis when supporting our customers.”

Dowdall said Mercedes never told her anything about the account being terminated and to the best of her knowledge, that didn’t happen despite repeated requests.

Mercedes said it could not provide further details because of policies to protect customer information.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made a rule that allows domestic violence survivors to separate a phone line from an account shared with an abuser. The agency is now taking a closer look at the law to see if it can enforce a similar rule with connected cars. The FCC is collecting public input and information from car makers.

The connected vehicle industry said car manufacturers are also taking their own steps to better protect customers.

“The manufacturers are implementing stronger security measures to protect against unauthorized access to vehicle systems,” said Scott McCormick, President and CEO of Connected Vehicle Trade Association. “There are a number of automakers and tech companies that are partnering with domestic violence advocacy groups and human trafficking groups to understand what their survivors or victims needs are so that they can develop technology and provide safety without compromising privacy. It’s not as pervasive as I’d like to see across the industry.”

We asked McCormick about what people can do in Dowdall’s situation.

“Fortunately, you can go to a third-party service center or garage, and they’ll do it,” McCormick said.

That’s what Dowdall ended up doing. She said she paid an independent mechanic $400 to disable the remote tracking system.

She said while she was disheartened over the lack of help from the car manufacturer, she was grateful she had Detective Downey in her corner.

“She didn’t give up. Just so thankful that she believed me,” Dowdall said about Downey.

Domestic violence survivor advocates argue it shouldn’t be that difficult or expensive for people to get the help they need. They’re calling on manufacturers and the federal government to create more clear pathways for protection.

For Dowdall, the imminent danger in her life is now gone. Her estranged husband died by suicide last year.

But Dowdall said she worries for others who may unknowingly be traced while behind the wheel – and that’s why she’s speaking out.

“It’s just something that sticks with you,” Dowdall said. “I’ve been trying to do what I can you know by talking about it.”


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