WOMEN have known for a long time that the phone can be foe as well as friend. To most, malicious calls are on a par with being flashed at, groped or followed - one of those unpleasant things that happen to us all sometimes. But reports last week of a spate of anonymous calls to Oliver Hoare, the art dealer friend of Princess Diana, proved that men can also be victims when the phone is deliberately used as a weapon.

Being on the receiving end of a nuisance call is deeply disconcerting. A few weeks ago Robert, a 48-year-old businessman, got home very late from work. At about 12.30am, as he was about to settle down in front of the television, the phone rang. He describes how 'a rather charming, husky, flirtatious voice' responded, 'Hello, how are you?' The conversation continued like this:

'I'm fine, but who are you? I don't know you.'

'Oh come on.'

'I'm sorry, I don't know who you are. Are you sure you want this number?'

'Of course.'

'I think you must have the wrong number.'

'Stop winding me up]'

'Sorry?'

'Don't you remember Wednesday night? You were so dominating]'

'Sorry, you've got the wrong party here.'

'Oh well, screw you]'

And she slammed the phone down. Robert forgot to mention the call to his wife. 'She phoned the next afternoon, distressed and suspicious. She said there was a message from a woman on the answer phone saying she couldn't believe my attitude the previous night and how could I forget her in this way. The message finished with some mock sniffling and said: 'you have got to tell her.' '

Robert, whose number is ex-directory, is convinced that he doesn't know the mysterious woman. 'Nothing makes any sense, I can't think who it was.' He was mainly angered by the brief upset it caused his wife. 'Had I been a woman I would have felt more threatened and probably put the phone down. As it was, I was intrigued.'

Jon, a 28-year-old youth worker, has a more persistent female caller. The calls started soon after he split up with his fiancee and he believes that they are from her. 'They started off with just silence - up to 15 calls in one hour. Then she would ring and speak normally. I asked her once if it was her and she denied it so I decided not to ask again. She's playing a psychological game - she wants me to react.'

Conversations ceased altogether, but the calls continued and grew more disturbing. 'She started calling in the middle of the night. Sometimes there would be silence, or a weird scratching sound, or a high-pitched, constricted voice, whispering words that didn't make sense, or saying things like 'I'm coming to get you' or 'help me, help me.'

'When you go to bed at night, you lock the doors and feel you are in your protected lair. If you get a phone call like that it's like an invading arm stretching through the window. You realise the phone isn't always on your side. But perhaps it's a safety valve - if there wasn't the phone she might try something worse.'

The modern phone has a dual personality - it is not only the friendly and reassuring creature that sits by your bed, but an efficient weapon for the disturbed or malicious. According to British Telecom, about 500,000 people were the victims of nuisance calls last year and about a third of the calls were made by women. Only about 15 per cent of the calls were obscene; well over half were of the silent variety. About 80 per cent of callers are known to their victims, according to a BT spokesperson.

The phone as weapon can be used in more imaginative ways too. The best known story is of the jilted lover who let herself into her ex-boyfriend's flat when he was away and phoned the speaking clock in Australia, leaving the phone off the hook. He came back to an unexpectedly hefty bill. Coronation Street's Denise Osbourne was plagued by unordered pizzas and taxis arriving on her doorstep.

The courts have begun to take malicious calls very seriously. Last May, Christopher Gelder, a bank clerk, was the first person to be convicted of grievous bodily harm for making persistent obscene phone calls. A man who phoned Central TV's Crime Stalker programme claiming his wife had kidnapped baby Abbie Humphries was also charged with GBH. The maximum penalty is five years imprisonment and the maximum fine may soon rise from pounds 1,000 to pounds 5,000.

Modern technology is constantly increasing the phone's versatility. The Princess of Wales might not know how to use a public one but pressing the last number recall button to catch out her straying husband was not beyond her. Canny adulterers know to dial another number after making illicit calls. Itemised bills are another tried and tested way of catching out straying partners of both the business and pleasure variety.

A measure of protection against unwelcome callers comes from using an answer phone to screen calls. According to Dr Guy Fielding, head of communication studies at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh, 'Until now the phone system has been asymmetrical in terms of power. The caller has had the advantage of anonymity, and has been able to exploit that. The answer phone has reversed that to some extent.'

The days of the phone pest may be numbered. From November, gadgets will be available that display the number of the caller. 'Soon we will be able to programme our phones not to accept certain numbers at all,' said Andrew Emmerson, president of the Telecommunications Heritage Group. 'It's getting quite devilish really. But people have the right to privacy. It's like having a spy-hole in your door.'

However, the phone has never been an entirely innocent device. The direct dial system was invented by one Almon B Strowyer, an undertaker, who was convinced that his rival's wife, a switchboard operator, was diverting all his business calls to her husband.

(Photograph omitted)

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