Personal Injury

How to Deal With Telephone Harassment (Legally)

Updated by Brian Farkas, Attorney
Being bugged by obscene or harassing phone calls? Here's what to do.

Obscene or harassing phone calls are an unwelcome intrusion on your privacy. They can ruin dinner with your family or a quiet afternoon. They can be a frightening experience. The Federal Communications Act, specifically 47 U.S. Code § 223, as well as many state laws, prohibit telephone harassment and create legal remedies and enforcement mechanisms.

When Does a Phone Call Rise to the Level of Harassment?

Not every call is harassing under the meaning of the law. There is a difference between an annoying call and a harassing one. Telephone harassment occurs when someone intends to annoy, harass, or threaten you by:

  • making a telephone continually ring
  • making lewd, indecent, or obscene comments, suggestions, or requests over the telephone
  • making a telephone call without identifying onesself
  • making repeated telephone calls where the conversation consists only of harassment, or
  • making a telephone call and using heavy breathing or silence with an intent to intimidate.

Just one unwelcome call can be harassing, though a single misdial or "wrong number" call may not rise to the level of harassment. It's a good idea to tell the recipient of such a call that you accidentally misdialed the number. People who commit telephone harassment are subject to fines, prison, or both. In many states, telephone harassment is a criminal misdemeanor and can be more serious when a defendant in a criminal case is harassing the victim.

What Other Factors Should I Consider Regarding Whether Calls Constitute Harassment?

Also take into account:

  • the timing of the calls: for instance, calls made in the middle of the night are more likely to be harassing
  • the frequency of the calls
  • whether the calls include threats to injure or kidnap, and
  • whether the calls include lewd or obscene language.

Are There Any Exceptions to What's Considered Harassment?

Telephone calls arising out of family disputes, political squabbles, and business matters are less likely to be made into criminal matters. A restraining order might be a more appropriate remedy in these situations.

What Should I Do if I Am Receiving Harassing Phone Calls?

If you are a victim of harassment, you should contact the police. When the calls come in, make a note of the gender of the caller, the description of the caller's voice, the time and date of the call(s), what was said in the call(s), and an estimate of the caller's age. If the police can identify the caller and find sufficient evidence, they will forward the case to the local district attorney's office to prosecute the caller.

Your phone company might be able to assist by tracking down the caller. Phone companies have different policies on the course of action to take when a customer reports receiving harassing phone calls. You should contact the business office of your phone company to find out its policy.

You could also contact a lawyer to help determine whether the caller's words or actions are obscene or otherwise unlawful. A lawyer can also tell you if you may be entitled to any civil damages for emotional distress.

If you receive a harassing phone call, do not engage in a conversation with the caller or divulge any personal information. Sometimes the caller is seeking a response from you, and not giving a response can discourage future harassing calls.

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