by Thilak S. Fernando

It was during my holiday in Sri Lanka recently that at a friend’s house the telephone rang quite often, during daytime office hours, when my friend a housewife, was doing her household chores peacefully. Sharma (false name) picked up the phone to be met by a volley of abuse and obscenity. However, the caller wasn’t a ‘dirty old man’ but sounded like a young woman of with a respectable Colombo Seven English accent.

“You are a slag!” Sharma’s tormentor sneered down the phone. “You’re shit.” It was the same as in the previous calls except that after the first call, the subsequent calls were short and the tormenter decided to slam the receiver as quickly as possible before Sharma could even get ready to tell her what she thought of the caller.

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka the facility of call- tracing is not available through any of the servers based in Colombo, be it Telecom, Suntel, Bell etc. The agony, irritation, frustration, and the anger victims have to put up with such nuisance calls in Sri Lanka, especially in the middle of the night, is unfathomable, and they are left high and dry in a helpless situation. My brief research revealed that most of the calls emanate during the night from people engaged in night shifts in factories. Nuisance calls can be wide and varied from heavy breathers, sex maniacs, silent listeners to those who entertain themselves at other’s misery and discomfort leaving exhorbitent phone bills to their employers too.

Once I listened to a tale of a young boy, impersonating as an official of the National Water Board at Ratmalala, telephoning and questioning the victims whether their water service was in order. When the enthusiastic customer responded eagerly and said: “ Oh yes! What seems to be the problem, is there going to be a water cut?” the boy in his elements seemed to enjoy saying “ ah! Ehnan gihin hondata naa- ganna” (o.k. then go and have a good bath!).

In the majority of cases, the people who are known to their victims seem to be the tormentors, but how do victims react to the possibility that their calls are probably someone they know? Initially they find it hard to accept. Once they have started to accept the possibility they may start suspecting everyone else they know.

In our Sri Lankan culture there is, of course, a third dimension too to try and detect who the culprit could be. Many believe in various occult methods too such as sending ‘Anjanan’ lights and seeking help from a medium (from the ‘soul world’ ) in a human body. In this case the person is in a trance and oblivious to what happens around him/her although the ‘spirit’ may reveal many things and give advice too. In such situations, the victim may have the benefit of hearing the actual name of the tormentor with a full physical description of him/her with exact dates and times of the act too. This was more than proved in Sharma’s case where she was able to detect the malicious caller as an agent of a ‘frustrated middle-aged lady’, who knew nothing about Sharma nor had ever set eyes on her, but purely phoning from a prestigious Colombo office for reasons unknown to Sharma.

In Britain, the story is quite different. Malicious calls are regarded as a criminal offence under Section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 and they are now traceable. Although this is not an imprisonable offence, it can summon the culprit to a magistrate’s court and carry a fine. Usually those found guilty are required to pay costs incurred by BT in tracing them.

A special Malicious Calls Bureau set up by BT, based in South London, monitors and handles such cases and special investigators are assigned to do the tracking of nuisance calls. South London Bureau is one of the many spread all over the country, handling over 200,000 problems a year. The Bureau network was set up after research revealed that some 15 million indecent, threatening, or abusive calls were made each year. The success of two pilot Bureau projects at Canterbury, in 1960 and Blackburn in 1991, paved the way for a national network. To help the public with this menace, the Bureau allocates a free phone number and once someone alerts the Bureau about any nuisance call, the victim’s telephone number is recorded at the Bureau. From that point onwards all callers to the reported number is automatically routed to the nearest Malicious Calls Bureau.

Tracing of malicious calls is a simple process. All what victims have to do is to make a formal complaint to the police. Police in turn will give the Bureau the necessary authorisation to carry out call tracing on the reported telephone line. After this stage, all what the victim has to do is to press the ‘1’ digit on their phone dial whenever the malicious caller rings; within seconds the origin of the call is located and printed out on the Bureau’s computer. When repeated malicious calls have been traced by a single caller, the Bureau informs the police about it and the culprit will get a surprise visit by Police who will either give the caller a formal caution or, in a particularly bad case, a court appearance and a fine.

When a conviction is recorded, the person who is registered with BT, as a subscriber, (not necessarily the malicious caller) is asked to sign a declaration stating that no more such calls would be made from that particular number. Refusal to sign, or further malicious calls emanating from that number can result in BT removing that phone line.

It is natural that all malicious callers take pleasure in extracting a response from their victims and victims are requested just to ignore and not to respond as a deterrent, however frustrating and infuriating it can become. Only the tenacious malicious callers are known to become a recurring nuisance and to make repeated calls. At that stage the victim, once reported the case to the police/bureau, will not have to refer the matter again as the BT will allocate the victim a completely new telephone number, free of charge.

All ‘nuisance’ calls cannot be regarded as threatening or abusive. Many could be silent ‘ heavy breathers’, others can be over-persistent tele-sales people who will not take ‘ no’ for an answer. Less sinister, but no less annoying, are calls from fax machines and the answer-phone machines.

Whatever the problem may be, BT takes the attitude that one nuisance or malicious call is one too many, and they can now trace calls made in Greater London and a elsewhere in the country, whether they are made from a home telephone, a public payphone, mobile phone or even from abroad. With the conversion of the telephone exchanges to digital operation, call tracing has become quite effective.

It is very unfortunate that in many houses that I visited in Colombo, the telephone plug had to come out of the socket when they retired for the day at night, for the mere sake of avoiding being rudely awoken middle of their sleep by a nuisance call. The danger of this exercise is that they quite often forget in the morning to plug-in the phone socket back while the purpose of having a telephone becoming diminished as genuine callers from the other end get frustrated when there is no answer from a telephone which has a constant ringing tone – without the knowledge of the subscriber. Perhaps its food for thought for the SLT look into this problem on a serious note and adopt the same system their partners BT has in England.