Tales from Fringe-Land:
Cellular Phone Call from Nowhere

Note: This is the 4th edition of this story, with an update on 10/19/2003, with some more details and a new development which sheds light on the first call. A 2nd edition in mid 2001 contained an update about a second strange call, not quite so mysterious as the first.

Preface
Time for a funny but strange and totally true tale which happened to me recently. First, some background: I have owned a cellular phone, with the same phone number continuously since the start, for about 7 years, and always through Bell Atlantic Wireless, which is now known as Verizon Wireless. Recently, in early October 2000, in preparation for a trip to California during which it would be necessary to stay in touch with a number of friends, I decided to upgrade my analog cellular service (as well as phone) to a nationwide digital plan with Verizon Wireless, and did so in time for the trip. I used the phone frequently during my trip to California in late October 2000, and the service worked quite well from a number of locations in airports across the country and throughout Los Angeles.
 

Part I
Early in the afternoon of Monday, October 30 (my apologies, earler versions of this story, including some which are now on Web sites, accidentally and erroneously stated the date as Monday, October 23; I have since checked my vell phone billing and travel records and confirmed the correct date), while I was sitting in my hotel room overlooking the beach in Santa Monica, my cell phone rang. I was not at all surprised, since I was expecting calls from each of two friends. However, the ring, while exhibiting the same sound and duration as my normal ring, was quite a bit louder than I had grown accustomed to, and I noted that as a distinct oddity as I answered the phone. The caller turned out to be neither of my friends, but rather a woman whom I did not know, who started with "Sir, whatever you do, please do not hang up; this is not a marketing call, and this is very important, if not urgent!" and then identified herself to me as "Susan", a "database manager" for a private communications company (something like "Northwestern Networks") in Colorado. Susan then asked me if I was the owner of "301-xxx-xxxx", which indeed happened to be my cell phone number and, yes, also the number she had just dialed.  I confirmed that, and said that this was indeed a phone number which I owned, and the same phone which I had just answered. She proceeded to tell me that in her capacity as security database manager she had noticed that I had routed 3 calls through their "secure network" earlier in the day, during mid-morning, and she wished to know how I had the authority to do this, and what "agency" I was with, since I was NOT known to her as an "authorized user".  She also wanted to know how I had accessed their database to register myself as an "authorized user"; she said this is not allowed and was illegal and unusual.

Although it was dawning on me that this was a highly unusual call, and I was starting to make a few guesses about the nature of the call, I played a bit dumb. I demanded to know what kind of network she was talking about, and why she would think that I had any ability to "route my calls" through her network. She responded that her company operates a large but totally isolated and secure private phone network and that I had routed three telephone calls of some sort through her network that morning, and again asked me what my "agency" was and what my authority was. At her mention that I had made those calls just that morning, my blood went a bit cold, and time slowed down; my thinking became extremely sharp and clear.  I had indeed been making cell phone calls all morning while driving around LA, but what scared me was the fact that she was referring not to three calls placed a month or two ago, but rather this same morning. This was eerie, at the least.  Even the best-staffed cell phone or landline telephone company will have a time lag of at least a month or two in tracking and accounting for unusual calls, and further, most will ignore the matter entirely unless the cost is over about several hundred dollars -- this is due simply to the cost-benefit ratio (e.g., why spend a half-hour of an employee's time tracking three unbillable calls whose cost totals probably two dollars?). For her to be checking on three calls, each a few minutes long, and probably amounting to less than a few dollars of phone charges, which I had placed only just that morning seemed to indicate that I had stumbled onto something really unusual. What company in the world has resources to allow a "security database manager" to track calls so closely that she is agressively tracing a few unusual calls within 2 hours?  None to my knowledge!

I asked her to repeat her name, and again she gave me her first name only ("Susan"), and again her company name ("Northwestern") and the fact that they were in Northern Colorado. I then told her that I had indeed placed a number of phone calls that morning, and perhaps some of them had been routed by my carrier through their network as part of a telecommunications routing arrangement. She grew a bit alarmed, and asked me what carrier I was talking about. I explained that this phone number in question belonged to my cell phone, and that my vendor/carrier was Verizon Digital Wireless. She was a bit stunned and aghast.  She asked me to confirm that I was really using a cellular phone, and a civilian consumer phone at that, which I did indeed respond "yes" to. She now appeared very confused and angry. She said she was under the impression that she had called a highly secure phone on a landline circuit at an "agency". She briefly tried to insist that I must be using a "secure phone" with special features, to no avail...

She then told me that there might be one possible answer to this puzzle, and asked me how long I had owned this number -- perhaps only for a few days? I replied in the negative, and responded that I had owned this same phone number through Bell/Verizon Wireless for over 7 years, but however had recently upgraded from analog cellular to digital cellular service, and again reassured her that I had no control over which "network" my calls were routed when I place a call from my cell phone, as I was just a "plain old consumer". She was flabbergasted, and hinted that I must be lying, or that I must have somehow "hacked" or modified my phone and gained some top security access codes. I replied with a "no" to all of her scenarios, and then counter-attacked a bit, since I was getting really annoyed. I reminded her that I was just one of millions of consumer cellular customers of Verizon Wireless, and that if she did not like how Verizon Wireless was routing their long-distance cell calls through her network, she should really have called Verizon Wireless and not me. Susan replied rather strongly that her company has no business or network arrangement with Verizon or any other consumer wireless carrier, and that the "incursions" on her network that morning as recorded in her database "showed" that I had routed the calls myself, and that there was no involvement from Verizon.  Indeed, she sounded disdainful about Verizon Wireless, and obviously refused to believe that I really was a cellular phone customer.  About here is where things got really interesting and where I started to feel like I was in a netherworld.

I had noticed from the start of the call that this was the loudest call I had ever had on my cell phone. I usually keep my receiver volume setting quite low, but her voice was literally booming at me at full volume. I pulled the phone away from my ear to reset the volume and noticed that the screen on the phone was not registering a call in progress (it read "busy" only) and was not showing any calling number. Now, that is really unusual, since even if a caller's number is unknown or privacy-protected, the screen will display "Call from: Unknown". I put the phone back to my ear and mentioned this to Susan, and asked her for her number. She refused to give me her phone number, and told me haughtily that she was not calling me through Verizon or any other known network, and thus my phone would not have any record of the call, nor would Verizon. She said the volume of the call would indeed be higher than normal, due to the method she had used, and that the call would show no calling number. She said she was making a secure call by linking ("a super link") directly into my phone "without using any known nodes", and that there was no record anywhere on earth that this call was taking place.  I seem to recall that she further told me at one point that "her equipment" allowed her to "insert" her call into the "nearest public node" to me. Since she semed to know so much about telecommunications protocols and "nodes", I was all the more flabbergasted that she would not have already known that my phone was "only" a consumer cellular phone, and nothing more.

My rather insistend caller insisted that I must stop immediately my "actions" of routing my calls through her private secure network, stating once again that she was certain that I was using a special secure phone (rather than a simple cellular phone) with the ability to pick and take over secure networks. I again reassured her that I was just a cellular consumer user and have no choice over how and where Verizon routes my many cellular phone calls on their way to their destination.  Susan then insisted that I stop using my phone. I strongly refused to do that, maintaining that I was nothing more than an innocent Verizon Digital Wireless customer/user, and that she had no authority to harass me in such a manner.

She started getting cranky (she had been acting haughty and superior all along, and now crankiness was beginning to show as well), and told me that she was going to remove my number from her database, and that this action would hopefully prevent me from "illegally using their network" in the future.  The astute reader might note that this same "Susan" had, minutes earlier, accused me of inserting my number as an authorized user into her database clandestinely; it might occur to such a casual observer that if I had been able to so easily manipulate Susan's database entries one time, why would her act of removing my number reassure her that this would stop any future incursions on my part?  Luckily, perhaps, the illogic of her statement eluded Susan.  Instead, Susan continued with her monologue; she further told me that if I were telling the truth about really being a consumer cellular phone user (which she obviously doubted), then Verizon must have made some serious errors in programming my phone, and that my phone might go dead within the hour, or that I might at least be unable to place long distance calls from this moment onward.

Since we were really getting nowhere, and her vague answers and vague insinuations were irritating me, I terminated the call after one more iteration of the inane exchange repeated above. Interestingly, when I went, after the call, to my "Contacts Log" (also called a "recent call stack") in the phone's memory, there was no record of any incoming call during that 15 minutes in which the call had occurred. I would have expected the log to have shown an incoming call with the label "Unknown" under "caller's number", but there was no record at all of the call.

I was now a bit angry. I immediately dialed the 800 number for Verizon Wireless and demanded to speak to a supervisor. As I started to tell my story, the Verizon Wireless customer service supervisor went dead silent, and then abruptly stopped me cold, only 30 seconds into my narrative.  He gravely told me that this was a matter of serious concern to Verizon, and that he was going to put me on hold for about 2 minutes while he contacted a technical support specialist elsewhere in the country; he asked me to please remain on the line as this was very important.  He returned in about 90 seconds, and this time he introduced the specialist, named "Ted", who immediately asked me to hold my story until he could contact yet a second, senior specialist elsewhere in the country whom he needed to hear the story from start to finish. When he had the new specialist ("Ron") on the line as well, Ted then asked me to tell my story to the three of them, which I did, pretty much as iterated above. The two newcomers did pointedly ask the customer service supervisor to leave the call shortly after they joined the call; they said that he would not be needed any longer.  They then asked me to tell my story in full detail, which I did.  They did not seem very surprised, and simply reassured me that I had not done anything wrong, and that they had already remotely tested my phone (during our call) and that it was perfectly fine, operating only as it should be.  They did tell me at one point in the call that their system showed no record of any calls to my cell phone in the previous 40 minutes, but that this might simply be because the information was not yet in their central computer.

The two techs at Verizon Wireless told me that this has never happened to any of their consumer customers before (I do wonder at the veracity of this statement, however, given the extraordinary level of their response to my complaint, and in any case, they did not sound very convincing on this point), but that they suspected that Verizon Wireless or one of their network subcontractors must have mistakenly routed three of my calls that morning through this "company's" secure private network. One of the Verizon techs then further speculated that we would likely find that there was no such private company in Colorado bearing the name given me; that the only likely explanation was that my call was from a top secret government communication facility, and that my calls must have somehow been routed through one of their secure networks, causing them a great deal of alarm.

He was rather puzzled as to how this could have happened, and confessed that while Verizon was currently, that morning, having some nasty network problems on the East Coast, there were none to his knowledge on the West Coast (where I was traveling at the time.)  In any event, Ron took great pains to assure me, my phone was fine, was not "trespassing", and would continue to place all my calls properly, despite the weird threats from my recent caller. He repeated that they (Verizon Wireless) had checked and tested my phone thoroughly during our call, and that my phone was operating perfectly and programmed just fine. Ron then proceeded to give me a telephone number at which he could be reached anytime, and asked me to call him immediately if my mystery caller ever called again, or if I experienced any disruption in my cellular service. Ron also asked me, if Susan or anyone else from "Northwestern" in Colorado called again, to ask them to please call him immediately at the number he had given me.

He confessed that he was as puzzled as I that "Susan" would have called me rather than Verizon, and also at the fact that her call was not recorded in my cellular phone's contact log, although he mentioned that there are several ways that a caller with enough savvy and technical equipment could accomplish just that. He did not seem particularly surprised at the untraceability of the call (e.g., nothing on my screen, no record in my phone log).  For some reason, the techs did not seem surprised at my mention that Susan had showed no interest in my suggestion that she, or her company, contact Verizon Wireless in order to resolve the problem.

My cellular phone continued to work perfectly in the aftermath of the strange call, and I encountered no problems in placing long-distance calls.  Further, I did not have any recurrences of this mystery call in the ensuing weeks and months, and continued to occasionally look back on the call with amusement and wonder. It was obvious that someone was quite annoyed and also a bit perplexed that my calls had gone through their "secure network", and that they had tried mild verbal intimidation when all else failed. I have continued to wonder at times how my three calls ended up on someone's private network, and how "Susan's" call got into my phone without leaving a trace.  Eventually, when my cellular phone bill arrived from Veriozn Wireless, it showed a 7-minute call (my memory was more along the lines of a 12-plus minute call), at that time and date, to my phone, but the calling number and locale were not available. Subsequent calls to Verizon Wireless Customer Service and to Ron as well (at his "special number") yielded no further information.  All parties at Verizon Wireless told me simply that any further information on this call (the phone number, locale or name of the caller) was unavailable on their system.

Follow-up calls on November 8th, 2000 and again in early December 2000, to Ron at Verizon Wireless yielded no significant additional information.  Ron said he had not received any similar complaints, and he could offer no theories other than his original.  Neither had he nor I received any further calls from the mysterious "database manager". Ron did mention that he could think of several ways that a savvy caller could access my phone through a "back door", the easiest being "taking over a node" in the network. We both agreed that this whole episode was a rather interesting and unusual incident, and we'd love to learn more about it someday!

I did some research on this matter in the latter part of 2000 using both long distance telephone directory assistance as well as an Internet search, and was able to determine that there is no no record of a company anywhere in Colorado with a name such as “Northwestern Networks”, “Northwestern Communications”, or “Northwestern Telecommunications”, or any reasonable derivative or variation thereof.

My own private theory, which I held until late January 2001 (see below), was that the call was not truly from a secure government-affiliated telecommunications carrier at all, but rather that it was a prank call from some very technically-adept phone hackers who had been tinkering with ways to talk with cell phones.  For some reason, the technical folks at Verizon Wireless were not particularly receptive to this idea when I broached the topic several times during calls, and felt that my mystery caller was a legitimate caller rather than a prankster, a hacker, or a crook.

Part II
I subsequently received a similar, but by no means identical, call a few months later, on January 26th, 2001.  I was again on the road, this time driving northbound on Rte. 83 in Central Pennsylvania on my way to visit friends in northern New Jersey.  At 3:45 PM, my cell phone rang (this time at normal volume), and the display read “Restricted” instead of a caller’s number.  This was not too unusual to me, as I had witnessed similar displays several times in the past when folks have called me from phones which had blocked or suppressed outgoing numbers (to foil Caller ID). Upon answering the phone, a young man’s voice told me that this was not a sales call, and he asked me to please not hang up, but rather listen to his unusual story.  He explained that his name was Darren, and he worked in the Customer Care department of a private landline telecommunications carrier named Convergent Communications in Denver, Colorado. I was fascinated, for I had almost instantly recognized the similarities to my mystery call from October 2000. I promised to listen, and asked him in turn not to hang up, and, notebook and pen in hand, immediately asked him for his phone number and extension should we be disconnected.  He readily repeated the name of his company and the fact that he was in the Customer Care department (I learned during later callbacks to Darren that this name is a euphemism for the department which handles billling problems), and gave me a toll-free number (877-266-8374) at which to reach him in the future.

Darren proceeded to tell me that he was simply curious about my phone number and my activities, since their records showed that I had placed several calls over their private network in November 2000, about a month and half ago.  He could not be specific about the dates and times of the calls, nor the number called, since that information was "not available to him", and could not be made available.  He sounded rather evasive on this point when pressed.  Rather, he stressed that this was simply an information-gathering call, since I had placed at least 3 calls on their network from my phone number (he did not know until I told him that it was a consumer digital cell phone) in November, and yet they had no record of me as a valid customer. Repeating to him what I had told to his near-counterpart Susan (this would be the "Susan of "Northwestern Communications" in Colorado) months earlier, I informed him that as a cell phone user with a nationwide calling plan, I had no choice or control over where and how my cellular provider and carrier (in both cases, Verizon Wireless) routed my calls once the were on the landline networks.  I then proposed that perhaps his company was a network contractor or subcontarctor to Verizon Wireless, and he answered that they have no contractual or other business relationships with any cell phone companies, and that in any case, the phone call header information did not contain any reference to Verizon Wireless, but rather showed my phone as the call originator.

As I expected, Darren stressed that even if they had known my provider was Verizon Wireless, they would not have any way to bill Verizon Wireless for these calls. Again, he iterated that he simply wished to know how I had routed these calls over their rather secure network.  I repeated that I had no control over how Verizon Wireless chose to route my calls, and that he would need to discuss this problem with Verizon Wireless.  Darren speculated that perhaps Verizon had entered some wrong “PIC code" numbers in one or more cells or nodes, causing them to route the calls accidentally route calls over networks owned by Divergent rather than by Verizon.  I then told him of my somewhat more mysterious call in this same vein in late October 2000, and briefed him on the response from Verizon Wireless: they were more than willing to trace their own programming and troubleshoot their systems to ensure that they were not routing any calls incorrectly, but they would need the name of the company, a contact person, and their phone number, all of which Darren had already given me.  Darren reassured me that there was no chance that my mystery call from "Susan" in October 2000 was from anyone in their company, among other things, they had, to his knowledge, no facilities or procedures in place to allow tracking such mystery calls so quickly (e.g., same day response), and that rather, such things would not "raise a red flag" for many months, as in this case.

Verizon Wireless had told me that if I received such a call again, I should tell the caller that Verizon Wireless would also need the time and date of the calls in question.  I iterated this to Darren, but it had already been established that this was information which neither Darren nor I had.  In any case, the technical folks at Verizon Wireless had already assured me that they would take care of researching this themselves with the private network company if I could but provide the company name and phone number.  Darren readily agreed to my giving his name and contact information to the technical folks at Verizon Wireless, but he was not particularly interested contactng the technical folks at Verizon Wireless with whom I had previously spoken, or even in recording thir phone numbers.  I explained that I was on a 5-day trip to New Jersey, and promised to get hold of the proper technical folks at Verizon Wireless when I returned home.

After I had returned home the next week, I found some breathing space on Wednesday, January 31, 2001 to check this story out further.  First, I needed to verify the "facts" of my experience the week before.  I called Divergent’s 877 number and asked for Darren in Customer Care.  We were shortly connected, and he recognized my voice and remembered our call from late the week before.  He was unable to offer me any aditional information in response to my questions, although he did reiterate that the calls in question were from 2 or 3 months ago.  He explained that such a time lag is necessary because it is not until calls are processed and reach the billing computer that anyone in his company might notice any “outlier” or “anomalous” calls, that is, calls from numbers which do not seem authorized to use their service, and then there is a further lag while they research such anomalous calls internally. He explained that there is no way that anyone at a company such as theirs could catch such anomalous calls on the same day that they were made (as had happened with my earlier caller.)

Daren reassured me that, unlike the claims of my previous caller, Divergent was not a high-security telecommunications carrier, or involved with secret or other government communications in any way.  I told him that I was about to call the technical folks at Verizon Wireless, and again offered him their contact information, but he was not interested.  Before ending the call, I again asked Darren, as I had asked him in our earlier call, if such a thing happened regularly: in other words, did calls placed by customers of Verizon Wireless or other cellular companies regularly appear on their networks. Darren again replied that he had never run across such a thing before, nor heard such a story before. Rather, he said, Divergent is simply a private long-distance carrier, and landline telephone customers (private and business customers) in some parts of the country have the option of choosing Divergent as their long-distance carrier.  He related that to his knowledge, they are simply unaccustomed to seeing such strange calls as mine appear on their networks.

Part III  -- Conclusion
With my notes from Darren at Divergent in hand, I then attempted to contact Ron Engle at Verizon Wireless.  This turned out to be a bit of a daunting task which took most of a day.  His old dial up extension number (240-568-2199, ext. 5754) was now out of service, and I could not get any other extensions at this number to work either.  I finally resorted to the somewhat time-consuming task of calling the toll-free Customer Service number (800-922-0204) for Verizon Wireless and navigating their touch-tone menus to a live technical support person. Luckily, the first such person I reached was a wonderful woman who recognized Ron's name immediately. She informed me that he had been promoted to a new supervisory postion in the Baltimore/DC HQ of Verizon Wireless, and indeed was in her same building, and gave me his new office number, warning me that it was not really a number which they were allowed to give to the public.

Somehow the new phone number for Ron was non-operative as well, and after two more days of wrong phone numbers and bad extensions, I finally got Ron’s correct phone number (240-568-2199), reached his voice mailbox and left him a message reminding him of our earlier call, and that I had new information for him.  He called me back a day later, stated that he was in a great rush as he was between meetings, and asked me to refresh his memory on the whole story.  I did so, briefly, and he responded that he remembered the whole thing, and would all me back late that same afternoon to get the details of the latest encounter, along with contact information for the person who had called, after he had completed a string of long meetings which were to last most of the day.  Ron never did call me back, even after I left him about a half-dozen more voicemails over the next week.  I then left him two voicemails acknowledging that he seemed very busy, and asking if there were someone else in his organization to whom he could refer me who would handle this matter.  Ron never responded to either of these requests, and I finally simply left on his voice mailbox the details of the lastest encounter, along with contact information for Darren at Divergent.  The last time I checked with Darren, two months later, no one from Verizon Wireless had ever called him.

Prologue
I eventually ended up telling an abbreviated version of this story over a beer to a friend who had worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) for 35 years before his retirement (as I live within one hour of Washington, D.C., such encounters with retired folks from such agencies are not ucommon.)  After hearing the story, he told me that it was extremely likely that the call from "Susan" was really from a security technician at the Defense Communications Agency (DCA), as my calls had likely been accidentally routed by Verizon wireless over DCA-owned or DCA-adminstered lines.  We both agreed that this would also explain why I received the call from Susan in such short order after the offending phone calls, and why there was no record of the company for which she supposedly worked in the public record, and even why and how she was able to circumvent normal telephone networks and the call tracking mechanisms inherent to them in placing the call to me.

I wish I could also tell you about the long black Cadillac with military plates which was parked on the winding mountain road outside my house in the weeks after the calls, or about the 3 sinister-looking men in black (3 men wearing black suits, and dark sunglasses) inside the car, or the strange antennas on the car, but that would be a silly fabrication and a writer's contrivance, so I guess the story ends here!  I hope you found this tale interesting!  Looking back, I appreciate the whole bizarre episode for the flavors of "strange", "weird", "mystery" and "fun" which it added to my life.  Although my life is far from boring or not-fun, this strange interlude nonetheless definitely added some new flavors, and gave me a fun story to tell my friends!  If you wish to contact me, you may write to me (my name is Vinny) at:
     vinny@mindspring.com



 
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