Please explain this unnerving phone call
August 17, 2009 10:12 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out the strange call I had asking if I was related to my brother-in-law. I has me feeling a little unsettled. The caller refused to identify herself.

A woman called from VA (number showed up on my caller ID) asking if I was related to my BIL. I asked her to identify herself and she refused and asked again if I was related to BIL. I asked her why she wanted to know, again she refused to divulge anything other than she had done some research that indicated someone at our address was related to BIL (his last name is different than ours). I said (stupidly) I would not give any personal info about "him." Though I didn't say his name, at that point I had probably given her enough information to indicate that I was indeed related to him. At that point she ended the conversation.

So now, I'm a little freaked out about the call. Obviously, I plan to call BIL when he gets off work tomorrow. I reverse-looked up the number and it's an unlisted number from VA (not my/BIL's state). I've run through some possible options. I can't imagine why a bill collector would call a relative and not identify him/herself. Same with someone planning a class reunion. An ex girlfriend would have no use for a relative. A legit. law enforcement officer would identify himself....right?

BIL is generally a good family man, though I don't know him all that well (married to my husband's sister, doesn't come to many family functions). I'm imagining all sorts of creepy made-for-TV movie scenarios that involve my children at this point. Please tell me I'm crazy and give me a reasonable explanation!
posted by caroljean63 to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think someone trying to collect a debt/repo something is the most likely explanation. They will try all kinds of strange techniques, and do not tend to feel bound by any ethical rules like identifying who they are.

Also, how common is your BIL's name? A lot of these people use public records lookups and will end up hassling someone who just happens to have the same name. I used to get all kinds of weird calls for a while (RANDOM PERSON: "Hey- do you still drive that Toyota?") which I think were because another guy in L.A. with the same first and last name wasn't paying his bills. (I also got temp agencies offering me jobs, thinking I was him.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:18 PM on August 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

It certainly doesn't sound like actual law enforcement, and a debt collection agency usually doesn't hustle that hard to track down deadbeats unless maybe he owes a ton to someone.

What it could be is a private investigator feeling around for behavior patterns. If so, it's not a good one. Someone could've hired a PI to check him out for any number of reasons ranging from pedestrian to scandalous. If they call back, look for ways to put them on the defensive by answering all their questions with more questions. Don't even give out your name even if she already knows it.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:21 PM on August 17, 2009

@ drjimmy11 - but wouldn't they want more info beyond, "Are you related to John Doe?" It seemed to me that all she was after was whether or not I was related to him. Once she got that, she was done.

The name is not completely uncommon (not as common as say, Jones or Smith, but not unusual).
posted by caroljean63 at 10:24 PM on August 17, 2009

It could be debt collectors. Or to be far-fetched, maybe it's a long-ago adopted or abandoned child of your bro in law's all grown up and looking for his trail. Have you tried calling the number back or doing some sort of check or trace on it?
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:48 PM on August 17, 2009

Most likely a debt collector of some sort. The rules about creditors identifying themselves to third parties are somewhat complex and depend on local laws relating to original creditors and third party collectors - when I worked as a credit analyst, I could not even disclose the company I worked for to a third party who was not an authorised nominee on the account. I couldn't disclose any information about the purpose of my call until I had verified that the person to whom I was talking was either the account holder or an authorised nominee, which led to a lot of frustrating conversations with account holder's spouses and parents.

I've also received more than my share of phone calls and letters from debt collectors trying to track down people who gave me as a reference years ago (pity they didn't check the references at the time) or who listed me as their closest contact who wasn't living with them.

As a data point for the future. If someone has defaulted on a credit account and has become uncontactable (the usual reason why creditors start contacting third parties), telling creditors who are chasing them that you don't know them or have no idea how to contact them may lead to the creditor listing them as a "skip" with reporting agencies and commencing aggressive and costly recovery action - be aware that your good intentions may have unforeseen and undesirable consequences.
posted by Lolie at 10:49 PM on August 17, 2009

You don't have the same name as him, but your last or maiden name may be the same as his wife's maiden name. I wouldn't worry about it, especially if BIL doesn't know what it could be about. I'd just give him a heads up.
posted by rhizome at 10:52 PM on August 17, 2009

Have you googled the unlisted number? I've found a couple of times that there are websites where people throw up numbers they've gotten from debt collectors, telemarketers, etc., that might put your mind at ease.
posted by one_bean at 11:06 PM on August 17, 2009

Seconding googling the number. Sometimes you get lucky and someone has already complained about debt collectors online somewhere.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:33 PM on August 17, 2009

I did google the # but the only thing that came up was a 2002 ad for a Reggae festival in VA. No name and googling the name of the band didn't lead to anything.
posted by caroljean63 at 11:50 PM on August 17, 2009

Give the number a whirl in a reverse directory and see if you get any better results.

Sounds like collection agents to me, fwiw.
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:58 PM on August 17, 2009

This could be a paranoid mistress who has found numbers from phone bills, cell phone records, or his contact lists trying to see if he's got another woman lined up.
posted by benzenedream at 12:00 AM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

When people ring me up and ask me impertinent questions, I ask them to identify themselves and the organization they work for so that I can look up their number and call them back; and if they won't play, my reply to everything they say is "cabbages" until they get sick of the game and hang up. It's a simple script, but effective.
posted by flabdablet at 12:06 AM on August 18, 2009 [29 favorites]

Debt collection is the only thing that comes immediately to mind, but I suppose your other theory about a private investigator is my #2 as well.

However, the plausibility of the PI theory depends a lot on your BIL's lifestyle—if he's listed in the phone book at his real address, such that anyone would find him with a few minutes or hours of research, then it doesn't make sense that a PI would call you. But if he's "off the grid" and has an unlisted number, keeps himself off of most commercial mailing lists, and takes significantly more-than-average care in protecting his privacy, then it might make sense for a PI to come up with your phone number before his. But it all hinges on what information about him is out there.

If you wanted to take the time, you could search using your BIL's name and see what pops up; you might also want to put your own phone number into a 'reverse lookup' search and see if it comes up with your BIL's name in addition to your own for some reason. If it does, that would go a long way towards explaining where the caller got your number.

If you don't get some other explanation when you talk to him, just as a public service to people being similarly harassed, I'd certainly go ahead and post the phone number that the call came from in this thread. That way, someone down the road who Googles the number might at least find the thread and get a bit of explanation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:07 AM on August 18, 2009

Might be your sister in law (Jane Doe-Smith) the caller was trying to reach. Maybe an old friend. The only way this would make sense is if your SIL isn't in any phone data-base, and the caller knew her friend married (BIL) John Smith. Since there are tons of John Smiths in the phone book, she was narrowing it down by calling relatives of Jane Doe. You verified that THIS Jane Doe is her long-lost friend by acknowledging the husband.
Maybe she didn't want to take the risk that you would blow the cover on the surprise reunion by telling you the reason for the call. Little creepy, but possibly innocent.
The kids are now safe.
posted by Acacia at 1:46 AM on August 18, 2009

Have you tried the number in Who Calls Me? to see if you get a hit?
posted by benzo8 at 3:19 AM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

ANother plausible possibility is they were looking for you or your husband. They know you have a brother in law named [BIL] and were confirming it was you at the address. Only you could answer why they were looking for you or your husband.

I would call the number back from a phone that is not yours such as a pay phone with a calling card. Sound like a wrong number and ask who you reached.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:56 AM on August 18, 2009

He's not Evan Ratliff is he?

I'd follow through with your plan to call your brother-in-law and ask if he knows anything about it. Best of luck.
posted by papayaninja at 8:44 AM on August 18, 2009

If the number came up on your caller ID, why not try calling it back? You can call from different numbers if you don't get any info the first time, or even block your own caller ID with *67 if you want. Do some sleuthing of your own!
posted by Pomo at 9:16 AM on August 18, 2009

Could be a bill collector looking for you? Asking an innocuous question that would positively identify you is old hat. Much more effective than asking "are you so-and-so?" from someone who has a reason to say no. Check your mail in a few days.
posted by cj_ at 3:56 PM on August 18, 2009

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