It's after midnight, the kids are asleep, and Kim Crawford lies awake waiting for the telephone to ring.
It does, and picking it up, she hears the maddening "beep" - silence - "beep" of a misdirected computer transmission that has been making life miserable for her and her family for weeks.The calls usually come between 12:30 and 2 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"You know it's going to ring, so you stay awake waiting for it," Crawford said. "That's the worst part."
Her husband is on 24-hour call, so unplugging the phone is not an option for the Craw-fords. Besides, they don't think they should have to suffer that inconvenience because of someone else's error.
They are victims of one of several types of phone harassment that for many people has transformed the telephone into an instrument of torture. Owning a phone can mean contending with impersonal computer-dialed messages, persistent sales calls, annoying wrong numbers, threatening or obscene calls, pranks, and various other types of tel-abuse.
But help is available, and the options for dealing with such calls are growing, said Leanne Shay, US WEST public relations manager.
"Generally, if the call is unwelcome, disruptive, repetitive, irritating - and is not threatening, abusive, obscene, or of a sales or survey nature - you could qualify it as harassing," she said. "We leave the characterization of the call up to the customer."
Threatening and obscene calls fall into the category of criminal conduct, and people receiving such calls are usually advised to contact the police first. After a report is filed, the phone company can employ a trace to assist the police investigation.
Salt Lake police have logged approximately 1,445 phone-harassment complaints - about two per day - during the past two years. Other police agencies report similar statistics.
According to police research, the peak time for harassment calls is midnight, and most of the offenders are juveniles. Complaints are usually assigned to intelligence division detectives, who work with the phone company to trace the calls and prosecute violators.
When the calls do not qualify as criminal conduct, customers have access to other techniques and devices, Shay said.
For example, in the Crawfords' case, US WEST determined that a "maintenance trap" was in order. The recurring and periodic nature of the calls at a time of day when computers often communicate, as well as the "beeps," were evidence of a mispro-grammed machine trying to transmit data to another machine.
"Once we identify the origin of the calls, we will notify the responsible party and resolve the matter," Shay said. No police involvement was necessary.
To eliminate many - though not all - unwanted sales or survey calls, a phone customer may contact the Direct Marketing Association and ask to have his or her name removed from telephone-solicitation lists.
Also at the customer's request, US WEST will remove the name from the customer lists it leases to various firms. Shay emphasized that unlisted and non-published numbers are never included in the leased lists.
Having an unlisted or non-published number is one of the more common methods of minimizing annoying calls, Shay said. Another option is to change phone numbers. In some situations, the phone company may waive or modify the usual fees for these services, she added.
Unwanted calls are not treated as trivial complaints by US WEST, Shay said. "Our representatives are trained to be responsive and sensitive."
Company personnel work with the complaining customer to identify the nature of the call and then explain the options and possible remedies. US WEST will also provide customers with "annoyance packets," which address specific problems and pre-sents the options.
Shay also advises customers to review the information in the "Consumer Tips" section of their local telephone directory.
In addition to the limited options available, US WEST is exploring the possibility of introducing the much-publicized "Caller ID" and related services to Utah customers.
"Caller ID" is one of several features of Customer Local Area Signaling Services, which US WEST has scheduled for technical trial in Boise during the first quarter of 1991.
"The purpose of the technical trial is to see how the service works from a purely technical standpoint," Shay said. "Once those results are compiled and analyzed, the next step would be a market trial and customer survey to determine the level of public interest in the product."
If US WEST finds the system to be functional and popular, it will then request permission from the Public Service Commission to offer the service and establish a rate structure.
Among features of Customer Local Area Signaling Services are:
- Caller ID, which can display the number and even the listed name of the calling party.
- Auto recall, which will dial the number of the last incoming call, whether identified or not.
- Selective call denial, which permits a customer to block any future calls from the last incoming number, identified or not.
"Caller ID" has generated controversy in some parts of the country, with opponents arguing that it violates constitutional rights of free speech and privacy. Proponents counter that unwanted calls violate the same rights and insist that requiring identification from a phone caller is no different than asking it of someone knocking at the front door.
In a test of program in Grand Forks, N.D., customers were offered a blocking feature that allowed people to thwart "Caller ID." However, only a small percentage took advantage of the offer, Shay said, and only 143 calls out of about 1 million blocked the identifying number.
"As such services become available and the public becomes acquainted with them, they could be a great help in deterring unwanted calls," Shay said.