THE TELEPHONE rings insistently in the middle of the afternoon. The young housewife, busy with her chores, lifts the receiver expectantly. It’s a welcome break in her routine— perhaps a friend suggesting a coffee break or even her husband ringing from the office to say he’ll take her out to dinner. Instead, her world falls apart. “I’m calling from the hospital,” says an excited, alien voice. “Your little girl is in the next room screaming for you . . .”
The call is a hoax—an ugly new twist on the familiar obscene phone call. A woman can indignantly slam down the phone when she hears a foul-mouthed sexual suggestion or the more menacing sound of a man breathing heavily. But she's likely to react positively and hysterically when a strange voice describes in minute, horrifying detail the pain and injuries a husband or child is supposed to have received in an accident. ( There arc sicker variations: “I'm calling
from the undertaker’s. What size do you want the coffin you ordered?”)
Valdemar Hartman, a psychiatric social worker who is director of social work for Ontario’s Department of Reform Institutions, says more and more women are complaining to police about gruesome-accident callers. “Until two years ago I had never run across this deviation in my patients,” he says. “But in the last two years, I’ve treated four such men.” Hartman and Dr. J. W. Mohr, research associate at Toronto’s Forensic Clinic, say
that each caller makes “hundreds of thousands" of such phone calls.
Hartman says the hoax calls about accidents bear out what psychiatrists have long suspected. A man’s purpose in phoning is not always sexual: it may be sadistic. E;.ven when the calls are frankly obscene, the object isn't necessarily sexual gratification; it's the desire to scare hell out of you.
Because he is trying to terrify (Hartman says the offender would really like to destroy all women but phoning helps him keep his precarious emotional balance), a housewife only plays his game by listening and reacting. One woman, who complained repeatedly to police about obscene calls, had listened to one of them for 90 minutes.
“The obscene caller gets no kick out of a click of a receiver being hung up," says Edward Seguin, a security supervisor for the Bell Telephone Co. in Montreal. “He’s looking for a reaction—he wants to communicate. And if you listen just once he’ll call and call and call.” Some other points to remember:
□ When you do hang up, leave the phone off the hook for a while. You’ve thwarted and enraged your caller and he may call persistently for a few minutes. But if you haven't listened, he probably won’t bother you after that.
□ If the call is about a supposed accident, try to keep calm and think rationally. If it’s from a “hospital,” insist on talking to a doctor; if it's a supposed bystander, talk to a police officer. Ask the person how he got your name and telephone number, particularly if a child is involved (they seldom carry identification).
□ If you’re the victim of an accident call, the chances are you know the caller—at least casually. No matter how adept he is at gleaning useful information from your replies, he already knew your name and knew when the supposed victim was usually out.
□ If you haven’t yet had an obscene phone call, don't invite one by advertising your number indiscriminately on supermarket or laundromat notice boards. Women who babysit or want sitters should make arrangements through a reputable agency; newspaper ads often attract obscene calls.
And don’t list yourself in the phone book as “Miss” or “Mrs.” or with your first name; initials are safer.
Despite automatic dialing. Bell does have ways to trace phone calls — but it becomes complex and costly to put the tracing machinery into operation if the call is made from a phone outside the recipient's exchange. Usually calls are traced only if you are pestered repeatedly and the process may require keeping the offender on the line for some time.
A Bell spokesman says the company has recently decided “to take a more aggressive stand towards obscene calls: we believe they are getting out of hand.” Presumably line identification machinery will be used more often. At present Bell usually suggests the customer either change her number (at no cost) or buy a Boy Scout whistle and blow it into the phone (it tends to split eardrums).
There don’t seem to be any common characteristics among offenders. Although many of them come from lower social and economic groups, a married man with children and a salary in the $7.000 range was convicted in Montreal recently.
And if you still can't understand what sort of sick mind makes obscene calls, think this over: one offender who kept a neat diary of all the calls he had made and what was said found that one third of the women he spoke to responded favorably to his ob-
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