The claim: In an emergency situation, cellphone users can change their voicemail greeting without service or data
As the Atlantic hurricane season reaches its peak, some social media users are sharing a misleading, years-old "emergency tip" for those in harm's way.
"If you ever find yourself in a dire situation and your phone is about to die or you have no service CHANGE YOUR VOICEMAIL!!!" reads text in a Sept. 13 Instagram post. "You don't need data or service to do so. Change it and state the time and your location!!!"
The post accumulated more than 25,000 likes within two days. Other versions of the claim spread widely on Facebook and Instagram, where they've accumulated hundreds of thousands of interactions, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.
After Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana as a Category 4 storm in late August, some parishes saw interrupted cellphone service, complicating search and rescue efforts. Other strong hurricanes from the past few years also interrupted service in affected areas.
If that happens to you, don't follow the advice in the Instagram post.
Wireless carriers told USA TODAY that, in general, customers need service to change voicemail greetings from their devices. However, it is possible to change a greeting over Wi-Fi or by using a landline.
USA TODAY reached out to social media users who shared the claim for comment.
Voicemail greetings don't update without service
There are some exceptions, but in general, cellphone users cannot change voicemail greetings from their devices if they don't have service.
That's according to statements sent to USA TODAY by each of the three top wireless providers in the country: Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
"While you could dial *86 or change your voicemail greeting with visual voicemail if your battery was dying ... you would still need cell service or a data connection of some sort," Steve Van Dinter, a spokesperson for Verizon, said in an email.
Hurricanes and other natural disasters can topple cell towers or shut down networks altogether. Without service or data, Van Dinter said there would be no way for a cellphone user's new voicemail greeting to update on Verizon's servers.
However, there are a couple of exceptions.
Van Dinter, as well as spokespeople for AT&T and T-Mobile, told USA TODAY their customers can update voicemail greetings over Wi-Fi. If they don't have any internet access, calling from a landline can work, too.
"When not on a cellular voice or data connection, customers can access and change their voicemail greetings using Wi-Fi calling from their device, or from another phone with service – including a landline phone," Lesley Merritt, a spokesperson for AT&T, said in an email.
Before disaster strikes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends making a kit with essentials like a wireless cellphone charger and a weather radio. In the event of an emergency, apps like Firechat and Zello may work better than text messages or phone calls if cell networks are only partially operational.
Our rating: Partly false
Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that, in an emergency situation, cellphone users can change their voicemail greeting without service or data. It's true that cellphone users can change their greetings over Wi-Fi or a landline, but they can't change their voicemail settings using a phone without service or data, as the Instagram post makes it seem.
Our fact-check sources:
CrowdTangle, accessed Sept. 15
Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Aug. 30, More than 1 million without power in Louisiana, one dead in Hurricane Ida's wake
Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Aug. 31, Ida live updates: How to apply for FEMA disaster assistance
USA TODAY, Sept. 28, 2017, Puerto Rico is nearly entirely cut off from cellphone service, leading to low tech solutions
Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Aug. 31, 2020, Hurricane Laura: Nearly 70% of cell towers offline in Cameron, Calcasieu Parishes
Steve Van Dinter, Sept. 15, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Statement from T- Mobile, Sept. 15, Email exchange with USA TODAY
24/7 Wall Street, Aug. 9, 2020, How T-Mobile became the second-largest wireless carrier, behind Verizon
Lesley Merritt, Sept. 16, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Federal Emergency Management Agency, June 1, FEMA Encourages Individual and Community Preparedness as 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season Begins
Zello, Aug. 30, 2019, HOW TO USE ZELLO DURING A HURRICANE
WBUR, Sept. 13, 2018, 17 Apps To Help You Get Through The Hurricane
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Cell service, Wi-Fi or landline needed to change voicemail