For six months, Donna Graybeal of Billerica, Mass., waited for the phone to ring, and every 90 minutes, day and night, it did--no fewer than 2,688 times.
She would answer the phone, hear what sounded to her like a rush of air, then a click, then a dial tone. Nobody was ever there.
"It drives you absolutely out of your mind," Graybeal said. "I thought, talk dirty to me. Do something. This silence is driving me crazy."
When she finally called the local police, they traced the calls south to the suburban Potomac, Md., home of Theodore and Elisabeth James.
But no one in the James family was making the calls. The prankster was an old, unused heating oil tank in the basement that was equipped years ago with a device to automatically dial an oil company whenever the fuel was running low.
"Poor Donna had been harassed for months by our oil tank," Elisabeth James said.
Bell Atlantic Corp. officials called it strange and unprecedented.
The Federal Trade Commission, which writes and enforces rules geared to telemarketers' use of automated phone-dialing equipment, has never gotten a report about such a problem, according to an agency spokesman. Even if it had, it couldn't do much.
"This still wouldn't be telemarketing," said FTC spokesman Allen Hile. "There has to be a campaign to induce sales, and this old oil tank wasn't trying to sell anything."
Steuart Petroleum in Washington installed the re-dialer device about eight years ago in a half a dozen homes participating in a short-lived test, said Stephen Crowley, account manager for Steuart. The tank was dialing an 800 number that Steuart dropped several years ago when the company sold its residential division.
Six months ago, Graybeal got an 800 line for the food-service equipment repair company she runs from her home. It was the old Steuart Petroleum number.
Nobody is certain what brought the oil tank to life. Harold Herman, a Bell Atlantic cable maintenance supervisor who traced the calls, said it might have been a power surge or a lightning strike.
"Something resurrected this machine from its deep sleep, and it woke up and started dialing," Herman said. "It's one of those things that makes you stop and scratch your head."