Melanie Lovejoy had never heard of a "junk fax" until one hijacked her life this week.
On Monday afternoon, someone blasted a fax touting a stock tip to thousands of unsuspecting people around the country. Irritated recipients called a toll-free number at the bottom of the fax to get off the send-out list, but a rare phone line mix-up transferred them to Lovejoy's home in Clifton, instead.
Lovejoy, her husband and their nine children knew nothing about the fax or the stock tip. But they soon learned. Calls started coming in around the clock. As of yesterday, the family had answered more than 1,700 fax-related calls and picked up 300 more on their answering machine.
"It's so irritating," Lovejoy said, in between taking calls. "Nothing is being done about it."
She complained to Verizon Communications Inc., her local phone provider, which said she had to deal with MCI Inc. because the toll-free number routed to her was assigned to MCI.
"That's happening outside of our system," Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe said in an interview.
MCI, in turn, informed her that because she was not a customer, she must refer her complaint back to Verizon, Lovejoy said. On her second call to Verizon, she was told that she had to change her phone number to resolve the problem, she said.
Such a misrouting of calls is rare, MCI spokesman Peter Lucht said in an interview. Apparently the toll-free number had been handled through a separate company that resold MCI services, and somehow the number was forwarded to the Lovejoy residence, Lucht said.
After a reporter called to inquire about the problem, MCI halted the misrouted calls around 2 p.m. yesterday.
Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group, said it had never documented a problem like this.
Meanwhile, the incident wreaked havoc on Lovejoy's already busy household.
Her 25-year-old son took to picking up the phone and saying, without salutation, "You've been removed from the list. You've been removed from the list."
The constant calls kept Lovejoy's husband, John, from using the phone for work.
"He'd dial the first two numbers and then a call would come in and interrupt it," Melanie Lovejoy said. The four cordless phones around the house started losing battery power because they wouldn't have time to recharge, she said -- apologizing during interviews after losing power three times on the phones.
The two answering machines at the Lovejoy household filled up with angry people complaining about getting unsolicited faxes -- although most of them were kind after finding out that they'd dialed a private residence, Lovejoy said.
James O'Neil, a retiree from York, Maine, was shocked to hear a person answer the phone when he dialed the number that led him to the Lovejoy residence. O'Neil, who said he's been getting unsolicited faxes every couple of days, calls the "unsubscribe" number whenever possible.
"I would religiously do that. You usually get a recording and punch in your fax number," he said.
After fielding a hundred or so calls from people like O'Neil, Lovejoy started instructing callers to notify the Federal Communications Commission, which tracks consumer complaints. She also gave them the number of the company, Austin Chalk Oil & Gas Ltd., listed on the fax.
Calls requesting comment from Austin Chalk Oil & Gas were not returned. But the answering machine at the Texas company acknowledged the problem.
"It has come to our attention that someone unrelated to Austin Chalk Oil & Gas Inc. has performing some type of fax promotion and/or program," the message said. "The company is urgently attempting to find out who is behind this program, and when successful, will file an immediate cease-and-desist" order.