ONE OF THE WORST cases of phone harassment I know of involved a young woman whose husband died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Even before the funeral was over, the calls started coming to the woman's home from a man who made cruel and sordid jokes about her loss.
It was obvious that the man had known her husband and hadn't liked him. But the dead man had been in a business that brought him in contact with hundreds of people. Some were competitors. Some were people he had fired or hadn't hired. A few were disgruntled customers. So the police said it would be almost impossible to track down the vicious caller.
The calls went on for several weeks. Not every day. He'd stop long enough so that she thought he'd finally gone away. Then they'd start again. Sometimes in the morning, before she left for work; sometimes late at night, awakening her.
She finally called me and asked if I had any suggestions. I told her to get an unlisted number. She did. And for several weeks, she had peace.
Then it started again. That can be a weakness in an unlisted number. People who have them don't realize how many people outside the phone company have access to the numbers: The place you work, all the companies and individuals you do business with. Somehow, he had found her new number.
Eventually she changed numbers again and attached an answering machine with the simple message: "At the tone, leave a message." That seemed to do the trick. Every so often, she'd hear a caller just hang up. She didn't know if it was the same man. If it was, he obviously took little satisfaction in talking to a piece of recording tape.
In briefly telling her story, it's impossible to describe the emotional pounding she endured. Her fear that he might be capable of something more violent than a phone call; that he might show up at her home some night. She had never held a gun in her life, but she bought a pistol and learned to use it.
Or to describe how the fear turned to hatred. She had always been a gentle person. But she learned to hate this stranger for his cowardly cruelty. She once casually mentioned that she actually hoped he would come to her home, try to break in, do something threatening, so she could pick up her gun and kill him. And I don't doubt that she would have. Nor do I doubt that I would have bought her a bottle of champagne to celebrate the occasion.
Fortunately, he became tired of the sick game. Or moved away. Or, even better, stumbled in front of a fast-moving truck. Whatever the reason was, she hasn't been bothered again.
But I've rehashed her story because of the debate over a new telephone service called Caller ID that's been introduced in several states.
You've probably read or heard about it. For a modest monthly fee, a device is attached to your phone. When your phone rings, the number of the calling telephone appears on the device.
A wonderful invention. Had it been in existence during the many months that young widow was being tormented, I doubt if the creep would have made more than one phone call. She could have simply said: "Your phone number is . . . . So that knowledge means I'm one small step from giving it to the police. And the next step is my signing a complaint, and you will standing in front of a judge. Care to dial again?"
It's impossible to estimate how many people, especially women, have been abused by panters, heavy breathers, dirty talkers, threat-makers and other verbal degenerates. The phone companies say it regularly runs into the thousands. And those are just the victims who report the calls. There are probably as many or more who simply hang up and tell no one.
But in the few states that have introduced the ID service, the creep-calls have dwindled. Even women who don't have the service are being bothered less because the callers can't be sure; they might have it.
You might think that this technology would be widely applauded. But, no, there are politicians and others who, in some strange twist of logic, say that Caller ID is an invasion of privacy.
Whose privacy? The callers' privacy. That's right. They say that when someone phones your home, that person has a right to be just a voice on a phone line, and you have no right to know who has phoned you or where they are phoning from.
Or, as has been pointed out dozens of times, it's like someone knocking on your front door, your asking "Who's there?" and the person on your porch saying, "None of your business."
So these politicians and groups want the phone company to provide something known as Call Blocking. That means you get your phone hooked up so your number doesn't appear on the Caller ID of the person you're phoning.
Rather than name it Call Blocking, it might be more aptly dubbed "Pervert's Pal."
Yes, there are genuine needs for a blocking service: abused women's shelters, substance-abuse hospitals and other places where people have good reason not to want their whereabouts known.
But those are isolated needs, and they can be taken care of while providing the Caller ID for the thousands for whom a phone is an instrument of psychological torture.
So for the politicians who are so concerned about the right to privacy of the caller, I have to wonder: Are any of you calling home from the office because you have to work late, when you aren't really in the office working late? Just a dirty thought.