Caller Information 

Harassing Phone Calls: What To Do

Obscene or harassing phone calls can be one of the most stressful and frightening invasions of privacy a person experiences. 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 and other states to make obscene or threatening calls. (California Penal Code section 653m, Penal Code section 422-422.1)

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?

Local phone companies have varying policies on whether to call the phone company or the police first. Some recommend that you first call the phone company's business office and explain the problem. A representative will connect you with the "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 phone company's policy is, contact the business office and ask for assistance.

For serious threats, if life or property are threatened, or if calls are obscene, you should call the police and file a report. Provide as much information to law enforcement as you can. Indicate the gender of the caller and describe the caller's voice. Note the time and date of the call(s). What did the caller say? How old did he/she sound? Did the caller seem intoxicated? Did he/she have an accent or speech impediment? Was there any background noise? Was a phone number/name displayed on the Caller ID device?

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" on your phone line. The Trap allows the phone company to determine the telephone number from which the harassing calls originate. 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 weeks. The phone company does not charge a fee for Traps.

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 the code *57 on your phone and the call is automatically traced (1157 on rotary phones). Call Trace is easier than using a Trap since the customer does not have to keep a phone log. But Call Trace technology works only within the local service area. (Look in the "Customer Guide" section of the phone book or the phone company's web site for a description of your local service area.)

Call Trace must be set up in advance by the individual receiving harassing calls, and it requires a fee for use. However, in situations where the phone company would ordinarily use a Trap, you might not be charged if the phone company suggests that Call Trace be used as an alternative. Be sure to ask.

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.

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

No. If the caller uses a phone booth or multiple phone lines, the phone company and law enforcement officials may never get enough 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 other types of unwanted calls may be of help.

What can I do to stop harassing calls without going to the phone company or police?

First, simply hang up on the caller. Do not engage in conversation. Typical crank callers are seeking attention. You have "made their day" if you say something to them or express shock or anger.

If the silent treatment does not work, you might try putting a message like this on your voice mail system:

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 the phone company 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, another suggestion is to 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 is the "pressure valve" strategy?

Some threatening calls are part of a larger pattern of abuse, such as stalking. Some experts recommend in these situations to get a new phone number, but keep the phone number being called by the harasser and attach a voice mail machine or message service to that line. Turn the phone's ringer off and don't use that phone line for anything other than capturing the calls of the harasser.

This is the pressure valve strategy. The harasser will continue to call the unused number and will think that he/she is getting through. Instead, you are simply using the number to gather evidence. You will want to save tape recordings of the calls.Get another phone number for your use, and be sure it's unlisted and unpublished. Give the number to trusted friends and relatives only. Do not give it to your bank, credit card company or credit bureau. Put passwords on all of your phone accounts (local, long distance, and mobile). Tell the phone companies in writing that they must not disclose any account information to anyone but yourself, and only when the correct password is given.

What precautions can I take to prevent harassment?

Do not disclose personal information when called by someone you do not know. They might be checking out the residence for possible robbery or other crime. If the caller asks what number they have called, do not give it. Instead, ask them to tell you what number they dialed.

To prevent being targeted for obscene calls and heavy breathing, women should only list their first initial and last name in the phone directory. Having an unlisted number is another option.

Children should be instructed to never reveal information to unknown callers. Instead, they should be taught to record the caller's name and phone number along with date and time.

Do not include your telephone number on the outgoing message of your voice mail service if you wish to keep your number private. By omitting your phone number from your message, you prevent random dialers from capturing this information.

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