Disabled Cellphones Source of Thousands of Sham Calls to 911

Monday, 07 Apr 2014 07:11 AM

By Elliot Jager

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Tens of thousands of untraceable bogus calls are flooding 911 emergency systems nationwide, made by pranksters exploiting a well-intentioned federal regulation that enables otherwise inoperative cellphones to connect with emergency assistance, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In San Francisco, a caller known as Nomar has been the source of 30,000 false calls since 2007, according to the Journal. On Thanksgiving Day 2012, five phones are believed to have been the source of 1,527 false 911 calls. Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, and Washington report comparable exploitation of their 911 systems.

Only a fraction of calls for assistance from disabled phones are believed to be legitimate, according to a survey conducted in Tennessee that examined a three-month period in 2006.

Under a 1997 Federal Communications Commission rule, disabled phones— including those not tied to a calling plan, as well as instruments whose owners are anonymous— must retain the capability to dial emergency numbers even when they can't be used to make ordinary calls.

The FCC is reviewing the regulation, which was instituted when cellphones were much less prevalent.

"Cell service was still a new thing," Trey Forgety, director of government affairs of the National Emergency Number Association, a trade group, told the Journal. "We wanted people in dire straits to have reliable access to 911."

The association would like the emergency-dial rule to be phased out. Demands for doing away with the feature also comes from 911 officials in California, Michigan, and Tennessee, as well as from carrier AT&T.

Besides malicious calls, thousands more known as "butt calls" are made when users inadvertently dial 911 as they press their phones stored in back pockets.

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