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Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Fact Sheet #3

    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.

Harassing Calls

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.

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

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

If  the calls are frequent or particularly threatening, the phone
company can set up a "trap." With a trap the phone company  tries
to  determine the telephone number from which the harassing calls
originate based on the date and time the call came in.  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.

A new phone company service called Call Trace may also be able to
help track down harassing calls. With Call Trace when you receive
a  harassing call you enter a code on your phone and the call  is
automatically traced. This is easier than using a trap since  the
customer  does not have to keep a phone log. However, Call  Trace
technology currently works only within the local calling area.

There are fees for Call Trace, and it is not yet available in all
areas of California. If the most effective way of determining the
number  of  a  harassing  caller is with Call  Trace,  the  phone
company's annoyance desk may provide this service for no charge.

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 put a stop to 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

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.

Other Unwanted Calls

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 aggresive 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 services.

2.   In some parts of California, new 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.

Note:  These new options are available only in some areas of  the
state, currently the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. It will
be  several  years  before the necessary equipment  is  installed
throughout California. Until then, these Custom Calling  services
will work only in local calling areas.

o    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 calls from outside
     your  service area. Call Block and Call Screen will not stop
     these long distance calls.

o    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.

     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.

o    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 problem.

     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 calling area.

Can I use Caller ID to stop unwanted calls?

Caller  ID is a Custom Calling service that the California Public
Utilities  Commission (PUC) approved in June 1992. However,  both
Pacific  Bell  and GTE have decided not to offer the  service  at
this time.

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. While some people believe Caller ID  would
help  reduce  harassing or unwelcome calls, others  raise  strong
privacy  concerns about the technology since subscribers  to  the
service can capture callers' phone numbers without their consent.

To answer these privacy concerns, the Public Utilities Commission
has  required  the  phone  companies to offer  extensive  number-
blocking  options.  Because of this and other  PUC  requirements,
phone  companies in California have decided not to  offer  Caller

For further information

For  more information on these and other privacy-related  issues,
contact  the  Privacy  Rights  Clearinghouse  hotline  at   (800)

The  Clearinghouse offers a free fact sheet on telemarketing that
provides tips on reducing the number of telephone sales calls you
receive (Fact Sheet No. 5, "Telemarketing: Whatever Happened to a
Quiet Evening at Home?").

Your  local  phone  company also has useful privacy  information.
Call  the business office of the phone company which serves  your
area and ask for more information.

The  California  law regarding harassing calls can  be  found  in
California Penal Code section 653m.

                                               Issued October 1992
                                               Revised June 1993