This morning I went out looking for a payphone.
I will concede, at the outset, that such a search is a colossal waste of time.
Like gazillions of people, I have a cell phone. If I want to make a call I pull a phone from my pocket. That extremely convenient and lucrative business model has essentially killed payphones, making them as difficult to locate as “The Goonies” finding One-Eyed Willie. In 1999, there were 2.1 million payphones, according to federal stats. Today: fewer than 750,000.
Most surviving payphones spend their days being walked by, made fun of, vandalized or used as conduits for prank calls to 911. Most all of them, that is, except the ones owned by Nicolaos Kantartzis, a Bethesda
business man. In a remarkable scheme, he programmed his pay phones to repeatedly call toll-free numbers so he could collect the 50-cent connection fees from the owners of the dialed numbers, which included federal agencies.
You won’t believe how lucrative this scam was: He netted $4 million. He pleaded guilty Tuesday in a Maryland federal court to charges stemming from his crime.
I went searching this morning for one of his criminally induced pay phones, stopping by the charmingly cramped Morazan Grocery II store on Summit Avenue in Gaithersburg.
Court papers say Kantartzis made 143 bogus phone calls from a pay phone outside the grocery store during a three-day period last December. This line from the court documents sticks out, neatly summarizing the fall of the payphone: “Video surveillance from this time showed that no user was physically placing a call at the payphone at the time any of these calls were made.”
I did not find the phone. The unwilling accomplice on Kantartzis’ crime, like so many other payphones, is now gone. “It caused us so many headaches,” said the store’s owner, Neftali Granados, an immigrant from El Salvador. “People call 911 from it. The police come. A headache. A real headache. They picked it up one month ago, I think.”
We both agreed that there was little use for pay phones anymore. Except, perhaps, for scams.
“You really needed them,” Granados said, “when you had a beeper.”