Cell-phone customer's mystery is solved

The Baltimore Sun

The obscure calls to Randy Cover's cell phone began four months ago.

Every day, sometimes three to six times a day, the 41-year-old project manager from North East would answer his cell phone only to have voices ask for people he didn't know. One caller was trying to reach her doctor's office; another asked about a job interview; some wanted to reach family or friends; and many were trying to contact businesses.

"At first, I would just tell callers that they must have dialed a wrong number, and then I'd just send them on their way," Cover said. "I did not think that anyone was pranking me because of the oddness of the calls. But when it began happening more often, I started asking each person what number they were trying to reach. All the numbers were different. I'd tell them to try their number again, and no one ever called me back."

Cover was able to determine that the calls came from Cecil County with a 410 area code and prefixes that started with 392, 398, 287 and 620. Also, when he remembered to ask, Cover discovered that the calls came from Verizon land-line customers who were trying to reach other Verizon land-line customers.

Simple enough, right? Just call Verizon and have them fix it.

Ah, nothing is ever that simple.

As if being trapped in a telephone twilight zone weren't bad enough, Cover was doubly cursed by the fact that it was taking place on his AT&T; cell phone. Egads, Cover thought, what a Gordian knot. How does one go about persuading a company that isn't his cell phone provider to help fix a problem on a phone from a rival service provider's network?

"I've had my AT&T; cell contract for about six years now, and I've had very few issues with it in the past," said Cover, who does have a land-line account with Verizon. "I called AT&T;, and they put me through to their technicians. They reset my phone, but that didn't fix the problem. Then they told me there was nothing they could do about it since their system was on the receiving end of the calls. They told me to call Verizon. I called Verizon, and they told me I should call my cell phone company. In repeated calls to both sides, I keep getting the excuse that it's not their problem or that tariffs prevent them from contacting each other."

Cover kept trying for four months, he said. At one point, AT&T; contacted Verizon about the problem, but the complaint went nowhere. Just imagine asking Pepco to solve a metering problem you're having with BGE.

After I made a couple of quick calls and e-mails to both companies, AT&T; and Verizon began working on Cover's problem. I'm afraid Cover would still be twisting in the wind without an assist.

Both companies said there is no tariff that prevents companies from talking to each other. They also apologized for Cover's continuing problem. AT&T; spokesman Alexa Kaufman said technicians looked at AT&T;'s network for failures but found none. Verizon, after some investigating with Cover's help, took a week to pinpoint the problem.

It's a complicated one.

Suffice it to say, it would require a long and very technical history lesson on how the telephone system works. It would involve explaining how phone carriers had to transition from 7-digit to 10-digit dialing when phone numbers started running out. I'd have to tell you how phone carriers tweaked their supercomputer systems to allow customers to use both dialing sequences for a while to ease the transition until 7-digit dialing was phased out.

Then I'd have to share with you how local number portability added to the problem, which is just a fancy-schmancy phrase that means you can now take your phone number with you if you move from one town to another.

All this is accomplished behind the scenes digitally and, sometimes, manually, involving complicated terms such as signaling, trunking, switches and packets of data that are sent back and forth to phone carriers to complete a call.

When things work properly, our calls go through seamlessly. When it doesn't, you can get a rare blip in operations, which is what Verizon's spokeswoman Sandra Arnette says happened to Cover.

When the 7-digit dialing mechanism was removed from Verizon's system, Arnette said, a software trigger was accidentally left in place or inadvertently issued to a portion of Cover's cell phone number. That caused incorrect routing data to be sent, which misdirected calls to Cover's phone, she added.

Removing the 7-digit software trigger immediately pulled the plug on the mysterious calls to Cover's cell phone.

"This is the first and only occurrence we have run across," Arnette said. "We will continue to pursue our investigation, but we are certain this was an extremely isolated incident. Please pass on our thanks to Mr. Cover for his patience with this issue. We also will issue a one-month credit to his Verizon land-line account."

Cover confirmed that his Bermuda Triangle of Lost Calls is kaput.

"It sounds all very complicated, but I think the bigger issue was just getting both companies to talk and work together," Cover said. "That was the biggest hurdle I had to deal with. I'm just glad it's over."

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@ baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming. Read the blog at baltimore sun.com/consuminginterests.

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