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How to put an end to harssing telephone calls

Fact Sheet # 3: How to Put an End to Harrassing Phone Calls


Copyright 1992 - 1999. Utility Consumer's Action Network.
Oct. 1992 / Revised August 1997.
This copyrighted document may be copied and distributed for educational
purposes only. The text of this document may not be altered without
express authorization of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. This fact
sheet should be used as an information source and not as legal advice.
PRC materials are designed primarily for California residents. Laws in
other states may vary. This publication was developed under the auspices
of the University of San Diego.


Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
1717 Kettner Ave. Suite 105
San Diego, CA 92101
Voice: (619) 298-3396
Fax: (619) 298-5681
E-mail: prc@privacyrights.org


                       How To Put An End To Unwanted
                         Or Harassing Phone Calls

Obscene or harassing phone calls can be one of the most stressful and
frightening invasions of privacy a person experiences. And unwanted phone
calls, while a minor problem when compared with threatening calls, can
still be a major inconvenience. Fortunately, there are steps you can take
to help put an end to these unwelcome intrusions.

What makes a phone call harassing?

When someone calls and uses obscene or threatening language, or even heavy
breathing or silence to intimidate you, you are receiving a harassing call.
It is against the law in California to make obscene or threatening calls.
(California Penal Code section 653m)

How often do I have to get these calls to make it harassment?

Just one unwelcome call can be harassing; but usually your local phone
company will not take action unless the calls are frequent. However, if a
call specifically threatens you or your family with bodily harm, the phone
company will generally take immediate action.

Who should I contact when I get harassing calls?

Different phone companies in California have varying policies on whether to
call the phone company or the police first. Pacific Bell recommends that
you first call the phone company's business office and explain the problem.
A representative will connect you with the Pacific Bell "annoyance desk."
Other phone companies may require you to file a formal complaint with local
law enforcement before they will deal with the matter. To find out what
your local phone company's policy is, contact the business office and ask
for assistance.

What can my local phone company do if I am receiving harassing calls?

If the calls are frequent or particularly threatening, the phone company
can set up a "Trap." The Trap allows the phone company to determine the
telephone number from which the harassing calls originate based on the date
and time of the call. You must keep a log noting the time and date the
harassing calls are received. Traps are usually set up for no more than two

A phone company service called Call Trace may also be able to help track
down harassing calls. Immediately after receiving a harassing call, you
enter a code on your phone and the call is automatically traced. Press *57
on your touchtone pad or dial 1157 if you have a rotary phone. Call Trace
is easier than using a Trap since the customer does not have to keep a
phone log. Call Trace technology currently works only within the local
service area. (Look in the "Customer Guide" section of the phone book for a
description of your local service area.) But after June 1, 1996, Call Trace
will work throughout the state.

You must subscribe to Call Trace and pay a fee for use. However, in
situations where the phone company would ordinarily use a Trap, you will
not be charged if the phone company suggests that Call Trace be used as an

The information collected from Call Trace or from a Trap is turned over to
law enforcement personnel, not the customer. Law enforcement officers try
to stop the harassing calls by either warning or arresting the harasser.
With both Call Trace and a Trap, your phone conversations are not listened
to or recorded by the phone company. Call Trace is available in most, but
not all, parts of California. Contact your phone company's business office
for more information.

Is the phone company always able to solve harassing phone call problems?

No. If the person making the calls uses a phone booth or multiple phone
numbers, the phone company and law enforcement officials may never get
sufficient identification to take further action. In cases like these,
changing your phone number might help. Also, you might want to get an
unlisted or unpublished number. In addition, the tips listed below for
discouraging unwanted calls may be of assistance.

Is there anything I can do to stop harassing calls without going to the
phone company?

Yes. First, simply hang up on the caller. Do not engage in conversation. If
that does not work, Pacific Bell suggests that you put a message like this
on your answering machine:

I'm sorry I/we can't come to the phone right now but you must leave a
message. I/we are receiving annoyance calls and Pacific Bell has a trap on
this line. If you do not leave a message I/we will assume that you are the
annoyance caller and this call will be traced.

If you answer the phone and the harassing caller is on the line, Pacific
Bell suggests that you say: Operator, this is the call. Then hang up. Or
say the word trap, what time it is and the date; then hang up.

What can I do to stop other kinds of unwanted calls?

Sometimes calls are annoying but are not serious enough to involve law
enforcement as is necessary with either a Trap or Call Trace. These might
include telemarketing sales calls, wrong numbers, overly aggressive bill
collectors and prank calls. There are several steps you can take to
discourage such unwanted calls.

1. An answering machine is one of the best ways to limit unwanted calls.
Available for as little as $50, an answering machine tapes messages when
you are not available and can also be used to screen your calls. Similar to
an answering machine, a voice mail service or an answering service can also
discourage unwanted calls.

Another product on the market is an attachment to the telephone called an
"inbound call blocker." It allows only those callers who enter a special
numeric code onto their touch-tone phone to ring through to your number.
This device is highly effective in preventing unwanted calls. However, you
must be certain to give the code to everyone you want to talk to. Even so,
you could miss important calls from unexpected sources, like emergency

2. In most areas of California, Custom Calling services are now available
from the local phone company which can help limit unwelcome calls. However,
before you sign up, look carefully at the services to be certain they will
work in your situation and are worth the monthly fee. Also remember that
these features only work within your local service area. Calls coming from
outside the area will not be affected by these features. (Consult the
"Customer Guide" section of the phone book to find out the boundaries of
your local service area.)

   * Call Block: Your phone can be programmed to reject calls from selected
     numbers with a service called Call Block (GTE) or Call Screen (Pacific
     Bell). Instead of ringing on your line, these calls are routed to a
     recording which tells the caller you will not take the call. With Call
     Block and Call Screen, you can also program your telephone to reject
     calls from the number of the last person who called. This allows you
     to block calls even if you do not know the phone number.

   * Call Block and Call Screen are not foolproof ways to stop unwelcome
     calls, however. A determined caller can simply move to a different
     phone number to bypass the block. Also, Call Block and Call Screen do
     not work on long distance calls from outside your service area.

   * Special Call Acceptance: In the flip-side of the Call Block idea, GTE
     offers a service called Special Call Acceptance. With this program you
     can stop all numbers from ringing except those you specifically
     program your phone to accept. Up to 12 numbers can be chosen to ring
     through. All others are routed to a recorded message. This feature can
     be turned and off by dialing a code.

   * Special Call Acceptance can effectively stop unwanted or even
     harassing phone calls, but it could also delay important or emergency
     calls. For example, a family member dialing from a pay phone would not
     reach you. An operator can override the service, but this would cause
     a delay in receiving the call. Also, calls from outside your service
     area would ring through, so a telemarketer calling you long distance
     would not be blocked.
   * Call Return: This service allows you to call back the number of the
     last person who called, even if you are unable to answer the phone.
     Even though you can return the call, you will not be given the phone
     number. Some people suggest that Call Return can be used to stop
     harassing callers by allowing you to call the harasser back without
     knowing the phone number. Use caution with this method of discouraging
     harassing callers, however, as it could actually aggravate the

     Privacy tip: Do not include your telephone number on the outgoing
     message of your answering machine if you wish to keep your number
     private. By omitting your phone number from your answering machine's
     message, you prevent random dialers and people with Call Return from
     capturing this information.

3. Another method of limiting the number of unwanted calls you answer is
with a Custom Calling service called Priority Ringing (Pacific Bell) or VIP
Ring (GTE). With this option you program your phone to give two different
rings. The special ring can be programmed either for calls you want to
accept or for calls you do not want to answer.

There are ways callers can get around Priority Ringing when it is used as a
screening device. If you program your phone for calls you wish to avoid,
the person calling could switch phone lines and avoid the distinctive ring.
In the opposite case, if you program calls you want to take, you run the
risk of missing an important call dialed from a pay phone or another
unknown number. Also, as with the other Custom Calling services, this
option does not work with calls from outside your local service area.

Can I use Caller ID to stop unwanted calls?

With Caller ID, customers who pay a monthly fee and purchase a display
device can see the number of the person calling before picking up the
phone. Some people believe Caller ID will help reduce harassing or
unwelcome calls. Others, however, raise strong privacy concerns about the
technology since subscribers to the service can capture callers' phone
numbers without their consent.

Caller ID will be available in California starting June 1, 1996. To help
consumers protect the privacy of their phone numbers, the California Public
Utilities Commission has required local phone companies to offer free
number blocking options to their customers. There are two blocking options
to choose from. If the customer chooses Complete Blocking (called Per Line
blocking in other states), their phone number will automatically be blocked
for each call made from that number. If the customer chooses Selective
Blocking (Per Call Blocking in other states), the phone number is sent to
the party being called unless *67 is entered before the number is dialed.
When the number is blocked by either of these methods, the Caller ID
subscriber sees the word "private" or "anonymous" on the Caller ID display

Because of these blocking options, Caller ID is not likely to allow you to
capture the phone number of the determined harasser. Most harassers will
block their phone numbers or call from payphones. However, Caller ID can be
used by people receiving harassing calls to decide whether to answer calls.
They can choose not to pick up calls marked "private" or numbers they don't

For further information

The Clearinghouse offers several fact sheets on other aspects of telephone
privacy. These are available on paper and on our Web site.

   * Number 2. "Wireless Communications: Cordless/Cellular Phones and
   * Number 5. "Telemarketing: Whatever Happened to a Quiet Evening at
   * Number 9. "Wiretapping and Eavesdropping: Is There Cause for Concern"
   * Number 14. "Are You Being Stalked? Tips for Protection"
   * Number 19. "Caller ID and My Privacy: What Do I Need to Know?"


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