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BT clamps down on malicious phone calls

BRITISH TELECOM is to crack down on malicious telephone calls, which cause misery to hundreds of thousands of people. In a campaign costing about pounds 11m a year, the company hopes to help increase the number of prosecutions in the next 12 months to 3,000 - up from about 200 a year.

BT receives 250,000 calls for help each year from victims of malicious calls. However, Oftel, the industry's regulator, estimates that about 15 million such calls are made. Recently, BT logged 97 calls made to a female victim on the same day. Oftel says that two- thirds of calls are made to women.

Research from a pilot scheme in Canterbury, Kent, shows that almost half of malicious calls made are silent. Fifteen per cent are abusive or threatening and 14 per cent are obscene, while only 2 per cent involve heavy breathing. Some are hoaxes and some related to domestic problems.

BT estimates that in about three-quarters of cases, there is a link between caller and victim - ranging from spurned suitors to work-related grudges and disgruntled neighbours. In London, one general practitioner was found to have been consistently plagued by a patient.

The new BT scheme is based on a national network of 13 special bureaux where experts will offer advice and take action to help victims of the calls. BT will offer a free change of number if this seems to be the right approach to take. A free advice line has been set up on 0800-666 700. The number for Welsh language customers is 0800-663 388. Two self-help groups for victims will also be set up in September, on a trial basis. The company said that increasing digitalisation of telephone exchanges is making it easier to track calls. For customers who are being repeatedly called, a local digital exchange can be programmed with a special code number for the victim. The minute a malicious call is answered, he or she can press the pre-recorded digit and the exchange begins to trace the call.

At present 80 per cent of calls made in the United Kingdom can be traced, but BT hopes this will be more than 90 per cent by the end of next year.

Beverly Ashworth, victim of a malicious caller for almost all of last year, said: 'If it works, it is great. People receiving these calls are usually reluctant to come forward. It is embarrassing and very private in a way, and many are probably afraid that if they ring the operator they will meet with indifference.' She said that the special bureaux might encourage people to come forward.

Ms Ashworth said she was plagued by a man making sexually explicit calls from January 1991 until November, when a 34-year-old Warrington man was caught and prosecuted. She chose not to have a new number but to work with BT and the police to find the caller.

'It was totally devastating. You come to hate the telephone and to feel totally out of control of the situation. I was determined that he should be found and stopped,' she said.