When a distraught woman telephoned the police last week, claiming to be Julie Lane, the errant mother of four-year-old Steven Lane, who had been found abandoned in a Bournemouth park, she was dismissed by the media as a "cruel hoaxer". But, while thousands of pounds of public money, and thousands of hours of police time are wasted every year by bogus tip- offs, false confessions and contrived complaints, many nuisance callers are more pitiful than evil. All are "sick" in some sense of the word, but there is a surprising degree of sympathy for them among police forces.
High-profile cases, man-hunts, murders, terrorist attacks, anything that attracts publicity, is also likely to attract the hoaxers, according to a spokeswoman for Scotland Yard. "You have to be either very wicked or very sad to do that sort of thing," she reflected, adding that a caller might have suffered some kind of tragedy in his or her own life.
"People have various motives," said Inspector Glen Chalk of the Dorset police, whose hunt for Julie Lane was hindered by the hoax call. "Some people might be overly helpful. They could have some information, and then embellish it. Others might be outright malicious." Many, he agreed, are probably fantasists, anxious to help or to associate themselves with events. "A lot of callers are attention-seekers."
Dr Glenn Wilson, University of London psychologist, believes that hoaxers often enjoy a sense of potency when they make their calls. "They may be people who feel they make no impact on the world, and this is one way they can do that, rather as fire-setters start fires then stand back to admire their handiwork. They see people running around and think `I did that!' For people who feel they have no power, it is the capacity to influence events.
"There may be an element of exhibitionism, of getting into the public eye. For the time on the phone, at least, everybody is terribly interested in what they've got to say. Anonymity spoils things, but they might deliberately then get caught, and might even become famous as a result, in a rather lesser way than those who kill a celebrity: they get fame in a very backhanded way."
Not all nuisance callers are knowing hoaxers: some probably, genuinely believe they have something to offer. "I suppose they may think they are being helpful," continued Dr Wilson, "perhaps telling police where a body might be found. They might really think they are psychic. They're not trying to be obstructive; they just want to get in on the act."
He has himself, on one occasion, phoned the police to offer them a theory as to who might have committed a particular crime, citing his credentials, giving reasons for his suspicions (he had a strong hunch, just as time- wasters have hunches, although in his case it was based on professional experience). He awaits the outcome of a continuing investigation, and in the meantime can relate to the desire to assist. "But you can't just be sympathetic. You have to take some kind of action to stop these people. They could be personality disordered or mentally ill, or anywhere in that range."
Such action, said Superintendent Chalk, might be a prosecution for malicious calls under the Telecommunications Act of 1984, or for obstructing the police. To waste the time of the police, and indeed of all emergency services, can cost not just time and money but human life. "While we're dithering around with a hoax call, there might be a real emergency. No 999 call can be ignored or discounted," Superintendent Chalk pointed out. "Even if we can say `That's Joe Bloggs, and we know he makes nuisance calls', we still have to respond."
The most notorious hoaxer in recent memory was, of course, the infamous "Jack", who so subverted the police hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Most of us would like to see him brought to book. There is, however, in Superintendent Chalk's opinion, "not a lot of point in prosecuting the sad fantasists".
Around one in five of the 22 million 999 calls made each year is a hoax or false alarm. People ring emergency lines because they are lost, or want someone to talk to, or have run out of cigarettes. A few individuals may make 15, 20, even dozens of calls. And during the school holidays, the problem increases quite markedly.
Since the emergency services have a duty to turn out however unbelievable the summons, someone should tell today's children about the latest BT technology, which enables emergency services to source all calls made via the BT operator and to record details, even if they are cut off mid- conversation. By this means, the police can increasingly trace nuisance callers.
Some calls made by children are frighteningly convincing, such as that to Samaritans by little "Rachel", reportedly aged four, of west London, who took the phone from her mother "Mary" to claim "Mummy is lying on the floor bleeding. I can't wake her. I think she's dead." When police traced the call and rushed to the address, they found no Mary and no Rachel.
Not all child callers are guilty of mischief and malice, of course. When Alan Docherty, aged two, from Fife, rang the police over Christmas to say he wanted a fire engine and a police car, he had simply got his wires crossed: he thought he was on the line to Santa Claus and was quite reasonably placing his order.
Then there was the five-year-old girl from Liverpool who saved her mother's life by dialling 999 after she collapsed.
Malicious calls are made to private numbers, as well as to the emergency and caring services. In 1994, reported nuisance calls to BT customers were running at around 60,000 a month - 60 per cent silent, 15 per cent obscene, 15 per cent threatening or abusive, and 10 per cent hoaxes or pranks. Thanks to introduction of the caller display and call-return services, however, whereby customers can see the number of the person calling before they pick up the phone, or can ring the exchange and hear who last called, the phone pest could be as much a thing of the past as party lines and Button B. In the year to November 1995, more than a million calls to 65,000 customers were traced at the request of police, resulting in 2,800 prosecutions or cautions.
It is troubling to think that some people out there think the hoax call - or hoax letter - is funny. Few of us would be entertained by the tale of John Rowntree, who received a letter on House of Commons notepaper, informing him that he was to receive an OBE. Mr Rowntree was thrilled to be able to tell his disabled, 86-year-old mother of his achievement - bitterly hurt and disappointed to learn that the letter was a spoof. And one must sympathise with the family of Flo Roberts, who read spoof obituaries of her, circulated on Tory party headed paper and picked up by two local newspapers, which said that she was a life-long Celtic fan and keen potholer.
There is a world of difference, isn't there, between the elegant hoax and the cruel wind-up. The Piltdown Man deserves his place in hoax history, along with "Count" Victor Lustig who twice sold the Eiffel Tower to scrap- metal merchants, and Count Cagliostro, who convinced 18th-century society that he was 18,000 years old (he attributed his longevity to the "wines of Egypt" and to body purges).
They knew how to hoax us, those old counts. These days we have Jeremy Beadle, "the most hated man in Britain", and his crew, smashing up a lady pensioner's beloved car here, dumping lorryloads of manure on a man's garden there. Or we did. Tired of having piles of manure dumped upon it, the viewing public has been reaching for the "off" button, and Beadle is no longer About.
Perhaps children today, influenced by TV, can be forgiven for thinking it's richly amusing to wind up the police and Fire Brigade; it must seem to them, after all, highly humorous, in the Beadle vein.What is more worrying is that people's friends and families, grown adults, loved ones, have been complicit in these excruciating teases. Now, that is cruel.
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