How to deal with harassing "Private Number" calls?
July 29, 2009 1:33 AM   Subscribe

Please help me solve a "Private Call" mystery. I have been getting calls for years from an older woman with an accent asking all sorts of weird questions. Now that she's started calling in the middle of the night, I contacted my cell phone carrier (AT&T) and requested help with the problem. They said my only option was to switch numbers. Do I have other options?

Ever since I've had this number (5 years), I've been getting calls from an old woman saying things that range from "Please help me," to "How old are you?" "Where is Ben?" and "Please teach me English." On one level, I am worried about her. On the other, I find her incredibly creepy. I've talked to multiple people at AT&T who all say there is nothing they can do because the number is listed as "Private," and that even if I were to request help from the police, they wouldn't be able to trace the number, either. Four the past three nights, she's called around four in the morning. Apart from turning my phone off when I'm sleeping (and getting a new alarm clock), what do I do in this situation?
posted by one_bean to Grab Bag (51 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I assume that you've tried to explain to the woman that she keeps calling the wrong number? Is she just totally demented and irrational? If not, have you tried hurling abuse at her?

If she is senile, have you tried asking her name? Ask where she is (city, state, whatever)? Ask if she has children, and what their names are? Get as much information out of her as you can. Then, having gotten that information, work from there to find somebody who'll take responsibility for her. It'll take some work... but, this sounds outrageously annoying.
posted by Netzapper at 1:51 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a phone number for AskMe where we call in our questions? What's the number?

But seriously... Can you block all calls from "private"? This would mean blocking calls from other, legitimate, callers. Think about how many of your friends and contacts have set the No Call Display option, and decide whether this is an option for you.
posted by seawallrunner at 2:08 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Blocking all "Private" calls is not an option (at least not through AT&T, though they did try to sell me a service to block specific numbers).

I have tried talking with her, but when I say, "What's your name?" she says "What's your name?" I think she may be a witch?
posted by one_bean at 2:17 AM on July 29, 2009 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Until you sort the problem out, could you set your phone to silent during the night? Mine will still sound the alarm even in silent mode.
posted by Solomon at 2:17 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

This happened to me once and I had a crazy woman accusing me of stealing her gold chain and having an affair with her son Jerome. She left repeated and vaguely threatening message on my voicemail. I recorded it, bleeped out the names, and played it on my (community) radio show.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 2:25 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Mine will also work as an alarm even if set in silent mode -- this might be your best bet, actually. Sorry -- this sounds like a real pain.
posted by at 2:25 AM on July 29, 2009

there is nothing they can do because the number is listed as "Private," and that even if I were to request help from the police, they wouldn't be able to trace the number, either.

Okay, I'm not the police, or an AT&T employee, but that has gotta be crap. If having perfectly untraceable phone numbers was as simple as getting your number listed as "private," it... well, it wouldn't be possible. That's nuts.

More practically: some phones let you assign ringtones to specific numbers (my old phone did, my new phone doesn't). Almost all phones let you input your own ringtones. If you can assign tones to numbers, and can assign a tone to "Private", then you can give it a silent ring (or maybe set it to vibrate) and let other calls have a regular ringtone. It'll be a bit crippling, in that all Private calls will be silent, but it might do the trick.
posted by Shepherd at 2:38 AM on July 29, 2009

Pretend you've changed your number and someone else has it now.

1. Assume fake Spanish or Japanese accent (or whatever accent\language you think you can pull off)*
2. Answer phone "hola", "moshimoshi", etc
3. When she starts talking, reply "no hablo ingles" or "wakaranai", something to the effect of "I don't understand" or "I don't speak English"
4. Hang up
5. Rinse and repeat and hope she gives up

* Obviously, try to place her accent and avoid using that as your "nationality"
posted by JaredSeth at 2:49 AM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The kinds of questions she's asking sound an awful lot like the kinds of things someone with Alzheimer's would say. My experience of people with Alzheimers is that they tend to wake at odd hours in a state of confusion - they don't know where they are, they call out for long-dead relatives, they shout for help.... if this case, reasoning with her would be fairly futile, as would any cute 'tricks' to try to dissuade her from calling again - she won't remember them. As to why she uses your number, it may be a number she remembers from sometime in her past, or perhaps a relative programmed her speed-dial with the wrong number.

I'd make it a project to try to get some identifying information from her. Of course if she's just a crazy old lady who enjoys making creepy calls, you may never find out.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:09 AM on July 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

i 2nd the set your phone to ring differently for private calls, in this case - silent. every phone i've had (from the crappy free one to smart phones) has this option.
posted by nadawi at 3:28 AM on July 29, 2009

Best answer: Have you tried calling the cops about it? The private=untraceable seems like bs to me also. If you call the cops and explain the situation, they may be in a better position to tell you how to get it sorted. I mean, while it does seem quite likely that this woman is ill, from your side of things this is pretty much harassment. Perhaps in view of that it would be possible to get her number traced and get in touch with someone who can either get her to knock it off or get her some help.
posted by Diablevert at 3:43 AM on July 29, 2009

Best answer: AT&T can't just trace a private line on the request of a customer. The police absolutely can, especially considering political developments in the last few years. It is a huge pain for AT&T. They are simply trying to dissuade you and take the easy route (for them) out.

This is harassment, plain and simple. Take it to the police. They can do something about this situation.
posted by Saydur at 4:23 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

She sounds super lonely/delusional/senile and possibly Alzheimery. She also sounds harmless. Maybe she wants to leave you all her money when she kicks off. Burn no bridges!
posted by nineRED at 4:26 AM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Use Trapcall so you can record what number she's calling from and then have AT&T block it.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:06 AM on July 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Call the police..

And, ATT has a service called "Privacy Manager" (at least it does where I live). Any call coming in as private (no caller ID) gets shunted to a mode where the person has to identify themselves before it rings through to you. Ask ATT about this, it may be helpful in that they will either not ID themselves (in which case your phone never rings) or if this is someone with a mental illness, they might actually give a name which will give you something to to on. the police.
posted by HuronBob at 5:08 AM on July 29, 2009

Saydur- tracing and tapping are two different things.

Yeah, call your police department's non-emergency #, or stop by a station, and explain what's going on. If you frame it (somehow simultaneously) as wanting harassment stopped, and concern about a senile old lady, you should be able to convince them to do something about it.
posted by gjc at 5:18 AM on July 29, 2009

Get YouMail (it;s free). Set up mailboxes for the numbers that usually call you with polite greetings.

Set up one for unknown/private numbers that says the number has been disconnected.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:21 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

On landline phones -- and I believe this works on any phone circuit -- you dial *57 right after the last call went through, and the phone company "tags" the previous call for the police. I believe there's a small service fee for it, but it works on all calls, private, blocked, long distance, etc (I believe there was a limitation on international calls, though), because the information goes to the police and isn't available to the general public like *69 does. After you get two or three calls "tagged" with *57, you contact your police department, tell them you've been getting harrassing phone calls and how to get in touch with your phone company (you may want to talk to AT&T specifically about how *57 works; if the first person doesn't know, try somebody else).
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:25 AM on July 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

As someone who grew up in a DOD/DOJ family, they can absolutely trace the number... at the request of the police. If they couldn't they'd potentially be in breach of a court ordered subpoena to turn those records over, so that ability is very well maintained. It is so routine that some companies simply hand the records over so a subpoena isn't even needed. Talk to the police. Mention you are worried about the caller's health.

Also, you don't need the number, you just want to block it. They *should* be able to do that, at least technically, without breaching the caller's privacy. You might try to work your way up the hierarchy to someone who can make that happen. Try the technical people who work on the hardware rather than regular customer support. Be clear from the start that you don't want to know the number.
posted by jwells at 5:27 AM on July 29, 2009

Look into Google Voice. Think gmail and a spam folder but for telephone calls. It's invite only right now, but if you put yourself on the list you should get an invite in a week or two. Any calls that go through that service you can have send straight to voicemail, have it ring only at certain times of day, drop altogether, etc, depending on who the caller is.

Right now when you sign up you need to pick a new phone number, but they're working on allowing you to port your existing one.

So at some point in the near future, this may help your problem.
posted by losvedir at 5:34 AM on July 29, 2009

I put my phone in airplane mode every single night when I go to sleep, specifically to avoid unintentional (or unwanted) mid-night wake up calls. The alarm clock feature still works just fine.

Also, I second the notion of assigning a "silent" ringtone to calls from "private" numbers (add a new contact if you must, call it "private"). It will always ring silent, even from legitimate callers, but at least it won't wake you in the middle of the night. Screening the calls from this person for a period of a week or two may result in them becoming disinterested and giving up.
posted by kenbennedy at 5:34 AM on July 29, 2009

Seconding the Alzheimer's suggestion. This is a textbook symptom of mid to severe Alzheimer's. Doesn't help you, but maybe it'll make it feel a little less creepy (since it takes away the possibility of malice being involved).

Given that it's a private number I wonder if she's calling from a nursing home or hospital. If she is, they'll want to know especially if she's calling long distance - most institutions pay through the nose for long distance even today.

I really don't recommend setting your ringer to silent for private calls unless you absolutely can't get anyone to stop her, since any call to you about a family member in an emergency will likely also be from a private number and that's a call you don't want to miss.
posted by watsondog at 5:54 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have AT&T for my phone service provider, and I had an occasion where I had to get the police involved to obtain the private number of someone who called me. Granted, in my case, it was because the caller had issued a threat against me over the phone, which is a felony in New York, so the police had more of an impetus behind them -- but my point is that there are means with which those in authority can locate even "private" numbers. What the police did in my instance was: they obtained a subpoena from the attorney general to have AT&T release the number, and hen submitted that subpoena to AT&T, who then pulled the records and got the number. This process took three months, however.

Because this probably isn't a felony in your instance -- and probably isn't even a misdemeanor -- it may take longer in your case, but I'd say it's still worth a call to your local police to see if there's anything they can do. Maybe not framing it as a case where you're feeling pestered, but more that you're getting concerned about who this person may be and you want someone to check in on her and see if she needs any real help. If you suggest that you're worried your caller may be someone in need of help, that may also help speed things along.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:24 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know, if the police thing doesn't work, the path of least resistance is just getting a new phone number. Yes, a total and complete pain in the ass, but there's a very good possibility you won't get this woman to stop on her own, the cops probably won't be able to do much (if they are anything like the cops in my town) and you can't save her either.
posted by jerseygirl at 6:59 AM on July 29, 2009

Thirding make-friends-with-her.

You haven't mentioned how you've been handling this so far. Have you spoken with her at length or do you just hang up? Once you've established some level of trust, you can prod her for personal information, including her phone number (you could say you want to call her back), and proceed to block that number if you manage to get it.

also ask what language she speaks / where she's from so that you can find a way to communicate. Failing this, record the conversation & pass it to someone who is skilled at decoding accents (like me).

Getting the police involved with a (seemingly harmless) mentally ill foreigner is just evil and should be the absolute last resort.
posted by breadfruit at 7:15 AM on July 29, 2009

AT&T is lying, of course, but I am in the camp of just getting a new phone number. If you can't stop harassing calls day and night for years because your life is couched around a rigidly unchangeable number, then it sounds like the old lady is not the real problem. You need to pick your battles wisely here.
posted by crapmatic at 7:48 AM on July 29, 2009

A guy I know (can't remember his name) tells these callers that "Piggy" phoned with a message for them, then gives them the police non-emergency phone number. He says the calls seem to stop abruptly.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:55 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Either this really is an elderly lady with impaired cognition (because, yeah, Alzheimer's patients do wake up at 4 a.m. and suddenly need to know where the dog {which died in 1967} is), or it's an incredibly focused campaign of harassment by a great actor.

Occam's Razor suggests the first possibility.

Now, obviously the short-term solution is to set all "Private" calls to a silent ringtone at night.

The long-term solution might be to approach the situation out of concern (feigned, if necessary) for the elderly lady with impaired cognition. The police might help you if you take that tack. And it would be a legitimate tack--whoever is providing care for this lady is clearly missing something important if she's making all these calls.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:56 AM on July 29, 2009

n-thing that the police not being able to trace this call is total b.s.
posted by xammerboy at 8:05 AM on July 29, 2009

I have read everything here and I:

+1 the *57 idea. This will tag these calls and the police will be able to do something about in case there is some malice behind all of this. In these situations it is better to be safe than sorry.

I personally think it is a senile old lady. You just have the misfortune of having one of her friends old number.

If she is a senile older lady then making friends with her won't do much good. She will not remember you. You should however give it a try once or twice to see if she can remember. Maybe she is just a lonely confused old lady who just needs a friend.

I don't think you are in any danger here. It is just one of lives little annoyances.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 8:07 AM on July 29, 2009

When I worked for a recruiting firm, they set all our phones to block caller ID, and I'd frequently get a recording saying "The party you are calling does not accept anonymous calls." So, I don't know if you'd need some type of business account or what, but clearly this can be done.

I wonder if the "Private Number" designation combined with the odd behavior and old age might mean she's in a nursing home--perhaps individual residents' names aren't assigned to phone numbers at the phone company level, but someone decided that "Private Number" appearing when residents make calls was preferable to a generic "Shady Glenn Retirement Complex" ID.

Also, I don't think "evil" is the correct term for ending harassment, which is what you're experiencing, even if ending the harassment requires police involvement. Clearly someone needs to find out what's going on with this woman so that a) her harassment stops, and b) you can be sure she's not in danger.

All that said, why not just get a new alarm clock?
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:15 AM on July 29, 2009

The police does deal with people with dementia. They should be interested as she may be a danger to herself.
posted by Gor-ella at 8:35 AM on July 29, 2009

You could try asking for her number and then see if you can get AT&T to block it.
posted by QueenHawkeye at 8:44 AM on July 29, 2009

She's probably calling a number someone in her family used to have. Can you do a search and see if you can find the name of the person who used to have your number?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:05 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

good grief, am I lousy at answering questions or what - they keep getting deleted!

I will try to explain this a bit more.

I have heard of parrots doing exactly this same thing. They jack around with a phone and wind up calling someone - does ANYONE that you know have a parrot? Perhaps you are on their speed dial and the parrot calls you.

You say that you try talking to her - "What's your name?" with her replying "What's your name?" Totally sounds like a parrot to me.

Also, you mention that she is "an older woman with an accent asking all sorts of weird questions." Does she ever do anything other than ASK questions? Maybe this parrot is trained (or only knows) questions after someone says, "hello." In addition - a parrot does sound like an older woman with an accent.

However, you did not mention the type of accent she has so I s'pose it could be something other than parrot accent.

Just a thought.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:05 AM on July 29, 2009 [36 favorites]

Nthing that this sounds exactly like dementia, including the behavior of repeating your questions if her mind can't process them.

Airplane mode on your phone would work nicely to avoid getting the calls, if you don't want to call the police.
posted by desuetude at 9:28 AM on July 29, 2009

I also read every comment.

Trapcall sounds easy peasy! The possibility this may be a parrot? Wow!

Still, it is most likely that the caller is an elderly person with some form of dementia. In other words, this is a GREAT opportunity for you to be an awesome human being if you can track down the number (via Trapcall) and alert the caregivers the elderly person requires extra comfort and attention late-night.

If you are not willing to go this route, than the suggestions to put your phone on airplane mode are the best solution. ( when I say "best" I specifically mean easiest and most efficient )

Um. When you asked us if she was a witch, you were kidding, right? I can understand being creeped out at 4:00am post-call, but I do hope you see reason in the light of day and recognize the calls are benign and/or completely ignorable via the wonders of technology.
posted by jbenben at 9:56 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is fucking creepy and awesome and you totally need to a) make friends with her and b) engage her in conversation and c) blog about it.

Yes, yes. Please make merriment out of this woman's mental illness. Wheee!!!!

Seriously, AT&T is shooting you a line of shit. Did you call more than once? Speak to more than one person?

Keep trying until you get to someone who can put a stop to this.

If it were this easy to make untraceable, unstoppable calls then every telemarketer in the world would be blowing up our phones nonstop.
posted by wfrgms at 10:00 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies. Yes, I know she's not a witch, but her manner is really unnerving. No, she's not a parrot. My phone doesn't recognize "Private Call" as a legitimate contact, so I can't assign those calls a specific ringer. Putting it on silent during the night is an excellent idea, thanks. The nursing home thought is a great one.

A few more pieces of information: first, my phone number is from an area code that's about 1,500 miles away, so I think the local police will be slightly less responsive, but still worth a shot. Second, it's almost certainly the first time the number's been used so I don't think she's calling a friend's old number -- though maybe something close to something she used to dial.

I do have a Google Voice account that I've been thinking of switching to, but honestly I'm really just curious about who this woman is. Until she started calling late at night, it was completely a curiosity rather than an annoyance. Will try to engage her more, updated if I figure anything out.
posted by one_bean at 10:19 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

first, my phone number is from an area code that's about 1,500 miles away, so I think the local police will be slightly less responsive

Call the police in the phone's area code and exchange, because that's most likely where the caller is. Explain that you're concerned about a confused elderly person who keeps calling you in the middle of the night, and you'd like to make sure she's okay as well as stopping the calls.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:30 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that this is creepy and not right, but still intriguing (parrot or not), does she/has she ever offered ANY information? Anything other than repeating your question?

Prior to the last three nights, how frequent have the calls been?

While it's quite possible and more than likely that the caller is a demented/Alzheimery/deranged older woman, is there a possibility that it's one of your pals pulling a really really long joke on you?

Or someone more sinister?

Whoever it is - they are not mentally healthy and I would strongly suggest either changing your number (a hassle) or pushing the issue with the police to get the call traced.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:30 AM on July 29, 2009

So, wait, you know what area code she's calling from?

If that's the case, try getting in touch with the police force in HER area. They may be more able to help figure out who this is -- and if you're lucky, they may even have a file on her already ("'re getting weird calls...lemme guess, she asks you to teach her English? -- yeah, sorry about that, we know just who this is -- that's Mabel Dirpansky, we know all about her, her husband had a stroke and she's been a little off ever since -- last week she was calling this guy in Topeka, and we sent a car out to tell her to knock it off, I guess she just fooled around until she figured out some other number; yeah, we'll go talk to her.")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:30 AM on July 29, 2009

Response by poster: I'm also going to try TrapCall for a little while.
posted by one_bean at 10:31 AM on July 29, 2009

and perhaps when you get this figured out you can update us all!
posted by Sassyfras at 10:35 AM on July 29, 2009

HuronBob: "ATT has a service called "Privacy Manager" (at least it does where I live). Any call coming in as private (no caller ID) gets shunted to a mode where the person has to identify themselves before it rings through to you. ."

Is that for AT&T home service or cell? I'm familiar with this for home service (sometimes I have to do this when calling people from work, not sure why) but I didn't know they did it for cell.
posted by radioamy at 12:38 PM on July 29, 2009

Something similar was happening to me about a year ago. It was really irritating and was really sending Mr. Maisie around the bend. Eventually I was able to draw the woman out enough to get her to tell me her name and who she was trying to reach. It turned out that that my phone number used to be her daughter's phone number. With the help of the police in my small town, I was able to get a message to the daughter that her mom was calling my phone number, but looking for her. I ended up talking to the daughter who told me that her mom was suffering from dementia and that next time she was at her mom's house, she'd make sure that my number wasn't listed in her mom's address book or speed dial. So maybe the solution could be something like? Poor woman.
posted by Maisie at 1:05 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, first update: TrapCall does not work in this situation. (From the website: ""Unknown" numbers are actually different than "Blocked" and "Restricted" numbers! "Blocked" and "Restricted" calls typically indicate that the person wishes to hide their caller ID, while "Unknown" calls typically indicate that the telephone company may be having a problem with the Caller ID number. "Unknown" calls typically come from VoIP lines and international callers where the number may not be in the proper 10 digit format.")
posted by one_bean at 2:49 PM on July 30, 2009

"Is that for AT&T home service or cell? I'm familiar with this for home service (sometimes I have to do this when calling people from work, not sure why) but I didn't know they did it for cell."

That's for landline service.. I didn't realize this was a cell phone we were talking about... and I'm so darn old I assume land line before cell phone... :-\
posted by HuronBob at 7:39 AM on July 31, 2009

Response by poster: Alright, next update. For some reason this time, immediately after getting a "Private Call" a few days ago, I got a call with an actual telephone number attached, with the country code +40 (Romania). Next steps? Should I call the number back? Anyone know a good reverse-look up site for Romania?
posted by one_bean at 11:07 AM on September 8, 2009

The call with the Roumanian number - was it otherwise in every respect like this call?

You wondered if you should call her back -- if you mean "call her back and talk to her," maybe enlisting the help of someone who speaks her language would be good, or at least finding out how to say "this is a wrong number." Otherwise I'm not sure precisely what calling her would accomplish.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:18 PM on September 8, 2009

Re: Google Voice: I also get harassing calls from "Unknowns" but so far don't see a way to handle such callers as a specific group using Google Voice. If I could, I could at least route them to a greeting stating that my number has been disconnected or something.
posted by Piscean at 3:23 PM on September 14, 2009

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