Computer Has Direct Dial to Sleaze

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For me, the new decade officially began Christmas Day, 1989.

That's when a computerized obscene phone caller began dialing my home number.

It's still calling. A few days ago, It even rang me at work.

The police don't know what to make of It.

The phone company hasn't heard of anything like It.

But all I can say is that if this is an example of what technological advancement bodes for the '90s, to heck with it.

I mean, we've all got to deal with techno-stress. But techno-sleaze?

I had been visiting friends Christmas Day and arrived home full of holiday spirit. So when the phone rang about 11 p.m., I answered with a cheerful "Merry Christmas!"

There was a pause on the line.

And then It began speaking.

"Hello." (Three-second interval) "Hello." (Three-second interval) "Hello."

Over and over, a computerized voice--neither male nor female but definitely electronically neutered--was repeating "Hello."

Naturally, I was puzzled. But then I figured that one of those annoying computerized telephone pitches had malfunctioned. You know, the calls that start out, "Hello. The XYZ Real Estate Co. will pay you money if you know someone who wants to sell their home."

I hung up the receiver and decided to go to sleep.

The phone rang again.

"Whore." (Three-second interval) "Whore." (Three-second interval) "Whore."

Before I could make sense of the call, the phone rang again.

This time, the message was harder to decipher. The word being repeated seemed to be "Fish."

Only after listening to six or seven repetitions of the word did I finally make it out.

"Feces." (Three-second interval) "Feces." (Three-second interval) "Feces."

With that, I took the receiver off the hook.

The next night, the computerized calls began at 11 p.m. and continued until I turned off the phone. Each time, the word was more disgusting. (Suffice to say the computer was, and still is, obsessed with sexual relations and bodily functions.)

Suddenly, I felt as if the phone were the enemy--and I was its prisoner of war.

I stopped answering calls altogether out of dread that It would be on the line. The worst times were when, in the middle of a pleasant phone chat with a friend, I would be interrupted by a call waiting "beep" and find that the computer was just spewing out more filth.

Most of all, I grew to despise that impersonal, unfeeling, voice that sounded like the evil twin of Hal in "2001."

At first I couldn't believe someone wasn't just electronically altering his or her voice. But after listening for a couple of minutes to one call, I realized no human being could keep repeating one word over and over, at exactly three-second intervals, with no deviation whatsoever.

And, then, just as suddenly as they had started, the calls stopped. Weeks went by without a word of the night, and I began to relax. Clearly, I reasoned, the computer had been dialing randomly, had a few days of "fun" with me, and then gone on to the next victim.

Or so I thought.

A few weeks later, when the phone rang at 11 p.m., I answered quickly, expecting the caller to be a college chum visiting from out of town. I was wrong.

It was on the line again.

As I banged down the receiver, a wave of nausea washed over me. And then I became angry--angry not only that a computer could do such a thing, but angry also at the absurdity of the situation. How did the computer get my unlisted number? Is the person behind this someone I knew? Who would do such a thing? Why would anyone want to?

The next morning, I contacted my phone company.

Understandably, I had to explain the problem several times before the customer service representative could grasp the concept that I had a computerized obscene phone caller.

"I've never heard of anything like this," he said with genuine amazement. "Let me check with our head of security."

A few minutes later, he called back. "Our head of security has never heard of anything like this, either."

After making it clear that I didn't want to change my home number, I was told to report the problem to the police so a "trap" could be put on my phone right away. As I understood it, the trap would track every call made to my home number. All I had to do was to keep a running log of all the calls I received, and the times they came in, so the phone company could pinpoint which ones were the computer's.

When I called the police, the officer was mercifully matter-of-fact about the situation. I went to work that afternoon feeling both a sense of relief and a need for revenge. I couldn't wait to nail this pervert.

That night, I was ready. I put a piece of paper, a pencil and a clock by the phone. A few calls came in early, but all were from friends. Still, I carefully logged each one. As 11 p.m. neared, my heart began racing. I couldn't concentrate on the magazine I was reading. Instead, I was willing It to phone.

It didn't. And It didn't phone the next night, or the night after that, either. So when LAPD Det. Anthony Puchalski called to see how things were going, I felt like an idiot.

He was very nice about it, however, and we discussed the various ways a computer might be programmed to make obscene calls.

How was the person behind it getting his jollies? Was he monitoring the calls? Or was he content just to know the computer was doing his dirty work?

And how was he making the computer calls? Was he using his own phone? Or was he triggering the computer to dial from a third number?

These were all questions we couldn't answer.

"I don't know how they're doing it," Det. Puchalski admitted.

After two weeks passed without any calls from the computer, I told the phone company to remove the trap. Frankly, I didn't like the idea of some gizmo keeping track of everyone's calls. I felt as if it were an invasion of their privacy. Nor did I particularly want to warn people that their calls were being traced because then I had to tell them what was going on. I thought the fewer who knew, the better.

When I hadn't received the word of the night for months, I believed the problem had solved itself. But last week, It called again.

And again. And again. The computer was in a phone frenzy. It even called during the day, which had never happened before.

Then, as if things weren't bad enough already, It called me at work.

How did It know where I worked? I'm not sure. Either the person behind this knows me, or, more probably, someone was monitoring the computer because the most recent message on my answering machine gives out my work number.

So, listen up, techno-sleazebag:

I'm going to get you. And I'm going to prosecute you.

And, I hope, by Christmas Day, 1990, you'll be behind bars.

Because I'm not letting you ruin the new decade for me or anyone else.

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