Cutting through Digital Anonymity • 6 May 2008

Me: Are you there?
Gary: Hello. Welcome to Verizon's chat service. How may I help you today?
Me: Are you real?
Gary: How may I help you today?
Gary, this is urgent. About a threatening phone call I just received from an unlisted number. I need the number traced and I don't know how to do this. Can we talk in person please? Internet chat is ridiculous at this point.
Gary: If you wish to speak to someone you can call Customer Service….This is a chat service and we do multiple chats at a time. I can give you the code to trace the last call that called you, but there are charges for that service. We also have an unlawful call center that I can give you the number for assistance with this…
Me: Already did *69 and it’s unlisted. Am a PhD student and not going to just throw money at this to set up weak protections.
Gary: Our Unlawful Call Center (UCC) specializes in calls of a serious nature that include a threat to your life; bodily harm; excessive, obscene, or harassing calls; kidnapping; and Bomb Threats. To use the services of the UCC, you must be willing to take legal actions against the caller. We regularly work with law enforcement agencies to resolve unlawful call complaints….

Me: Verizon might want to know about what happened here. Because the threatening call originated with an automatic sales call then referred me to a call center. It was the person at the call center who harrassed me. He has my phone number (read it to me over the phone so he can see it through his interface at work).
Gary: You can contact law enforcement or use the information for the UCC to report harrassing calls.
Me: I'll use the UCC. One more question for you:
Me: I want to get my number changed. This individual who harrassed me (it was horrible, horrible what he was saying) has my home number.
Me: He may have already traced it to my identity through a reverse directory.
Gary: In order to protect the privacy of your records, we need to verify the last 6 digits of your account before we can place orders or make any changes to your account. Once you provide this information, I will be happy to proceed with your request…
Me: Thank you!  What is the VERY first thing we can do right now to protect me? Not “place orders.” Is there a way immediately to delist my phone number? Or change it?
Gary: Through web support I can change the number but it may not be done right away. It is guaranteed to be changed today….
Me:I know how much dead air there is between me and customer service [by phone]. While i have you live i want to do everything we can immediately to protect me and my family from this freak…. (i'm in the fucking phone book, but if we can erase the listing in whatever online directory, good: anything we can do to anonymize.)
Gary: As I said, this won't be immediate. The due date is sometime today. It could be shortly but we don't know how busy they are at the Central Office. There are charges to make the number unpublished. I will look those up for you. You can go to and submit requests to remove you from the online listings, but please refrain from swearing. That is not necessary.
Me: Sorry. You're right. I'm just scared because of the things this man said to me and trying to act quickly. I will go to superpages and also report this incident to the UCC. Again: you are changing my actual home phone number or just delisting it?
Gary: I can change your number at no charge this time (usually it is $40.25). To make your number unpublished there is a charge of $15.00 and a monthly fee of $1.75. We would be changing your actual number and if you want the non-published that is the costs above.
Me: I will pay the fees to depublish if this includes online publication. Does it?
Gary: No. Non-published means it will not be printed in our printed directory and it will not be given out by Directory Assistance…that is it. It has nothing to do with the online services.
Me: Ok. I'll take what i can get
. How do I ensure that the UCC people can get the number of the company that originally called me and then directed me to the call center where he works?
Gary: I have no idea what they can do, I am web support and can only advise you of the department to call…
Me: Ok. Is there any other way you can help me considering the time-sensitive nature of this situation? Or any advice as i go?
Me: Oh, and i need my new number 🙂
Gary: Thanks for holding. Your new number is [ahem]. Unfortunately I can only advise you to call the UCC or to contact law enforcement.
Me: Works for me. Thanks for your help man. And thank you for being kind unlike the guy who just harrassed me. Cheers.
Gary: Sorry for the problems! Thank you for using Verizon's chat service.

The call that started this is from a company that rings through to my answering machine every day. I’ve gotten off every list but theirs. I’ve done “press 1 to be removed from our list” several times, so today pressed 2 to speak to a representative. He said he was in Daytona, but the connection quality and language make me think it could have been India or Bangladesh. The way he harassed me was so calmly businesslike, stilted, and so unbelievably obscene that I thought a coworker had smuggled him a fake transcript and he didn’t know what he was saying to me. It took about 10 exchanges for me to realize he did know what he was saying. I did not get emotional—figuring either anger or vulnerability could be turn-ons—but asked him to put himself in my shoes. Said: “Do you really want to be cruel to a stranger?” He said he understood and that he did not want to be cruel. I asked him to promise he would never do something like this again. He said: “I am very sorry Madam. I promise I will not call you. Please forgive me.” I forgave him. Then I hung up and spent the next hour quasi-anonymizing.

So interesting to have the archipelago of my global digital identity shored up like this. The limits of anonymity have less to do with a monolithic national “big brother” than with the breakneck innovations in marketing and digital communication, and the fact that "regulation" and national boundaries are years and years behind them both. Even as ideas of what makes for sexual obscenity–and the emotions that happen when different boundaries get crossed–remain located in particular spaces, cultures, religions, economic classes, genders. It's not like the guy on the line shared my specific, historical concepts of sexual harrassment, women's rights, and professional deference.

But when it came to the notion of compassion… he was both able and willing (at least for a moment) to meet me on that ground.