Prank calls considered form of harassment

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Almost everyone has experienced a prank phone call at some point, whether on the giving or receiving end.

The horror-comedy trilogy of "Scream" movies made a killing using harassing phone calls as a plot line.

TV cartoon star Bart Simpson is famous for his childishly malicious pranks to bartender Moe.

And almost every kid, at one time or another, tries out the old "Is your refrigerator running?" gag on a friend or classmate.

But while prank phone calls may seem harmless -- even mundane -- they also quickly can degenerate into a far more unpleasant situation: harassment.

Kenai Police Sgt. Gus Sandahl said three different sections of anti-harassment law pertain directly to telephone use.

Specifically, calls designed to tie up a person's phone line against their will, needlessly wake people in the middle of the night or make obscene or threatening statements are both illegal and punishable by law, Sandahl said.

While harassing phone calls aren't the biggest legal problem facing police, Sandahl said they do happen. In fact, he estimated that the Kenai Police Department receives an average of one complaint every two weeks.

Sandahl said police usually advise complainants to use a simple trick of technology to ward off the calls.

Whether or not a victim calls the police, he or she can use a function offered by most phone companies to reject incoming calls from specific numbers.

Sandahl said if a person receives a harassing phone call, the victim should tell the caller not to call back, hang up and dial *60, which will block the number from which the call was made. In the future, if the perpetrator tries to call from that number, the call will not go through to the victim, and the caller will hear a prerecorded message saying the call has been blocked. The *60 function can block up to 12 numbers at a time.

Two other bits of technology -- Caller ID and *69 (which provides the number from which the last incoming call came) -- also can help victims identify the person making harassing phone calls.

All three phone functions may come with a minimal fee.

Usually, however, rejecting the number alleviates the harassment problem, Sandahl said.

On the rare occasions when a caller persists or finds a way around a block, the police do have some recourse, Sandahl said.

"If a person is not satisfied with the results of *60, or the calls otherwise continue, they can call the police department," he said.

In such cases, the police can initiate an investigation and contact the person causing the harassment.

"With any investigation, we can call the other person causing the problem and let them know the victim is concerned enough to call the police for assistance," Sandahl said. "Sometimes, an officer just telling them they are committing a crime might be enough to stop it."

On the rare occasions when call rejection and police intervention don't work, Sandahl said legal action can be brought against a harasser. Police can obtain search warrants for the phone records and send the case to court.

It's rare, but it does happen, Sandahl said.

Sandahl advises residents to be aware of their phone options in the event of telephone harassment. And, he said, people should call the police if they are being persistently harassed or feel in danger due to a phone call.

"It's not legal," he said.

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