No number is private any more

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The Independent Online
KENNY ROGERS, croak-voiced purveyor of baleful country ballads to the God-fearing legions of middle America, is in trouble. Last week the bearded lothario was presented with law suits by three female former acquaintances. The women allege 'malicious infliction of emotional distress', brought about by Rogers's unorthodox telephone manner.

Rogers, it is alleged, is a fan of the sexual charge that telecommunications can bring. He has, his spurned associates suggest, set up a toll-free phone line. When he meets someone to whom he takes a fancy, he gives them a number to dial. When they do, they hear a recorded message full of helpful ideas about how they might behave the next time they come into contact with the singer.

So disturbed were three of his communicants, though, that they have felt moved to sue him for distress. The fact that he has a personal fortune somewhat greater than the annual budget of Camden and Islington Health Authority is purely incidental, they insist.

Rogers denies it all. Sadly for his accountant, all three women made recordings. And the husky voice on their Walkmans sounds unnervingly familiar.

The singer is not the first person to find the telephone exciting. Nor is he the first to be thus hoist by his own phone card. Technological advance means that the dangers of telephone romance are becoming almost too great. No longer are they confined to the eavesdropping switchboard operator, the hurried replacement of the receiver as your spouse walks in, the whispered instruction never to phone you at home again.

The managing director of a small organisation of my acquaintance recently landed in a pit of telecom embarrassment that makes Kenny Rogers's look shallow. Unfulfilled in his home life, he took advantage of the telephone contact section of a magazine. This offered readers the opportunity to leave a message on a phone line; other lonely hearts could ring the number advertised and, if they liked the sound of what they heard, make further contact.

Someone from the magazine's advertising department rang up his office to check out some details. Sadly for him, a mischievous colleague answered the phone. Worse, the company had just installed a hi-tech switchboard with a system whereby if an extension went unanswered, an answering machine automatically kicked in and took messages.

Imagine everyone's surprise when, one Monday morning, the entire staff came into the office, pressed their buttons and heard on their personal answering machines a recording of their boss's love plea, left there by the colleague who had answered the original call: 'Hi, I'm Stevie, I like leather fun, and if you do, too, give me a call on . . .'

It might be assumed there is a Freudian desire to be caught out in the way both Kenny Rogers and my acquaintance Stevie toyed with telecommunications. The chance that they might be left with a red face, never mind a red bill, adds a frisson of excitement to the enterprise. Not that anyone at the Independent would have caught either: in common with many other companies, ours has put a block on its employees dialling those expensive 0898 numbers.

Advances in phone science can catch out even the wary. Itemised phone bills have meant a huge increase in the use of local call-boxes (since royal tastes in romance were exposed, only exhibitionists use mobile phones to conduct their affairs). When her husband scours the bill as closely as most British tight-wads do - usually to check how much the children are running up by ringing chatlines - the last thing a dallying wife wants is to attract attention to a suspicious number appearing seven times a day. The husband need only dial it to discover that it is not the hairdresser's.

Not that everyone worries. A recent nanny of ours was unabashed about her liaison with a boyfriend with a distinctly international dialling code.

'I was only on the phone for a few seconds,' she pouted when challenged about it.

'No, actually,' came back her employer. 'On 4 May you were on the phone for 5,400 seconds to a number that appears to be in Sydney.'

'What do you want me to do,' she replied, 'write to the guy?'

If you are of a suspicious nature, the telephone provides inordinate, terrifying fuel for your paranoia. And new devices accentuate it.

A woman I know suffered from a jealous husband, who after she had finished on the phone would creep up and press the 'last number redial' button to check out to whom she had just spoken. My friend found out her husband was doing it only when her mother asked why he always seemed to call moments after she had. Oddly, since their separation, the couple speak only by phone.

The next big breakthrough in technology we are threatened with is the videophone. This will finally remove the mystery from phone callers, end illicit telephone activity and seriously reduce BT's ever-expanding profits.

The prospect of Kenny Rogers's grizzled countenance appearing in their living room is sufficient to drive anyone to communicate with their lawyers immediately. By post.

Peter Pringle is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)