The many woes of getting someone’s recycled phone number, and tips on dialing down the harassment.

There’s a story out of Hollywood in which a rap star named Lil Jon got himself a new cellphone and almost immediately started getting strange calls and text messages.

“CONGRATULATIONS ON TEEN VOGUE!” screamed one text message. This was followed by an onslaught of calls from fast-talking, hyper-excited teenage girls wanting to dish about teenage girl things.

Weird, right? It turns out that when Lil Jon got his fancy new phone, it had been assigned a number that had once belonged to Miley Cyrus, who was at the time still in the role of Hannah Montana.

A rap star getting calls from Hannah fans? That’s just fun stuff. Of course, things like that are always fun when they’re happening to someone else. When it happens to you? Not so much.

None of our readers have reported getting annoying messages or unwanted calls from teen pop stars, but they’ve suffered their share of grief thanks to the phenomenon of recycled phone numbers.

Take Stephanie Dupal, for instance, a theater worker from Lisbon Falls who had an ugly experience several years ago when she got herself a new phone.

“When I first received my current cellphone number, I had one number that kept texting me dirty jokes and pictures,” Dupal says. “I told him that it was a wrong number and he kept doing it. So I called him up and said that this phone belongs to my 13-year-old daughter and if he sent her one more text I was going to the police and charging him with sexual exploitation of a minor. I never heard from him again!”

But Dupal was already adept at ridding herself of phone nuisances – she had a similar problem getting someone else’s number for her land line.

“My home phone had that problem 20 years ago. Took years to convince them I was not the one that owed money. The only thing that worked a little was telling them to reverse number look up and see that the phone is now registered to someone else – then threatening to report them if they continued to harass me.”

A few years ago, the FCC reported that 37 million phone numbers are recycled each year and that number is continually rising as more and more people switch to cellular as their primary phones.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, two out of five households these days use wireless phones instead of land lines. And every time a land line gets discontinued, that number is placed into a pool and a mobile provider can pick it up and reuse it in as little as 90 days.

When you get a new phone or change providers and get a new number, you really have no idea where that number has been. Chances are good, though, that you’ll find out.

“Our old phone number use to belong to the old physic palm reading business that was on Center Street in Auburn,” says Raynald Lebrun, of Lewiston. “They had the sign up for a year after closing and we would get calls from people all the time.”

“We have a land line, since cell service can be spotty where we live,” says Nancy Townsend Johnson, of Dixfield. “The people who owned the number before us – nearly 12 years ago – had a construction company that went out of business. We still get calls from bill collectors as well as folks looking for estimates!”

“When I first got my current number in 2005, I was the lucky recipient of many, many calls for a Nicole,” reports Wayne Heyward, of Sabattus. “It was obvious they were bill collectors because I’ve been there so I know the code. It took about six months have to get them to stop.

“Then, about eight years later I started getting a new wave of collection calls for Nicole. This time it was the same guy every time. I’m betting he bought up some of her expired debt in hopes of collecting on it. Got them daily for about a month, and no amount of explaining, or yelling, or just answering with a string of expletives and hanging up, would stop the calls.

“After a month it just wasn’t fun any more so I blocked the number. For the last several years, though, I get these waves of text messages along the lines of ‘Nicole! We have a way for you to make $$$ with little or no effort from the comfort of your home!’ Of course I don’t bother to respond to those.”

The FCC mandates that recently disconnected phone numbers be kept out of use for at least 90 days. After the holding period is over, back into circulation they go. When a customer signs up for phone service, mobile companies assign a number from a pool of available numbers. The numbers are generally assigned at random, plucked from the blocks of numbers available through the North American Numbering Plan Administration or the telecommunications company Bellcore/Telcordia.

The issue of recycled numbers is so touchy, employees at the phone stores generally aren’t allowed to discuss it with customers, according to one former T-Mobile worker. She offered a tip on how best to avoid a freshly recycled number.

“If you find yourself needing to change your number,” she said, “I encourage you to ask for a new number. That means it hadn’t been used for over a year.”

That might be of help to some new customers, but fat lot of good it does to those presently being slammed by unwanted calls to recycled numbers on both cellphones and land lines.

“My current phone number used to belong to someone named Mark who angered a lot of local bill collectors,” says Christine Grindle, of Pownal. “I got tired of the voicemails (I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize), so I recorded a message saying, ‘You have now reached Christine. Please leave a message and she will get back to you soon as she can.’ That lets the angry people know Mark has moved on to greener pastures and newer phone numbers.”

“My wife and I briefly had a land line a few years back. We only ever got calls from debt collectors looking for someone named Abdi,” says Russ Keith, of Lewiston. “We finally got tired of the calls and trying to explain that Abdi doesn’t have that number anymore.”

“I use to have the land-line number for a smoke shop that was on Lisbon Street that went out of business,” says Denisa LaFlamme, of Lewiston, “and I used to get some very interesting phone calls looking for some very interesting products. I finally had to change the number through Time Warner because it was ridiculous – but my daughter had a good time with the phone calls.”

One local mother reported that her 13-year-old blind autistic son was being barraged by calls from Viagra salespeople. One can only wonder what the previous owner of that number was up to.

The matter of misplaced phone calls is fun and all (if it hasn’t happened to you, that is) but it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better. According to the North American Numbering Plan, without some kind of intervention, the supply of available phone numbers will be exhausted by the year 2047. That seems hard to believe considering that 10 decimal digits will produce 10 billion different phone numbers.

The problem is that every single mobile device that connects to the cellular network, including modems, tablets and even cars equipped with OnStar, is assigned a new and separate number. Add to that the fact that 95 percent of Americans own some kind of cellphone, and those 10 billion numbers will go fast.

Laurie Charest, of Auburn, saw that coming two decades ago. She started out with a TracFone when cellphones were just becoming popular. She liked the phone number that came with the phone and so she stuck with it, porting the number and taking it with her through various new phones and services.

“Even switching to a Droid from Verizon,” she says, “I was able to keep the number.”

Charest has the same number she started out with and not once has she gotten a call from a debt collector or some starstruck fan looking for Hannah Montana.

But for most, the risk of ending up with someone else’s number is going to rise as fewer numbers become available.

One proposed solution to the dwindling availability of numbers would include the creation of 12-digit phone numbers. Another involves the addition of a single number to existing area codes. One way or another, it looks like we’ll all be in for punching more numbers into our phones when we need to call people not presently listed in our contacts list.

Which of course will increase the chances of mis-dialed numbers, which is another set of problems all its own.

“My land line was one digit off from Waterville Post Office,” says Debbie Barker Reed, who lives in Bethel. “I used to get all kinds of complaints about mis-delivered mail.

She continues, “I had a work phone that belonged to a previous employee in a different district. I got calls from her dentist, doctor, pharmacy and former flame wanting to get back together with her.

“I also received several interesting text messages. One was a birth announcement, photos and all, another was an ‘I love you’ with a bear and a heart. The ones that irritated me were the 5:30 a.m. calls from the Gray area school district cancelling school. My kids go to Oxford Hills.”


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