Bored? Lonely? Curious? Just press 976 and you're in the brave new world of 'audiotex,' where you can listen to murder confessions, match wits with Monty Hall or pay good money to hear the sound of mashed potatoes being smeared

You've reached the Guardian Angel Action Line. Press 1 to learn about drug abuse . . . Press 2 to learn about self-defense . . . Press 3 to learn about drug and crime policy issues . . . Press 4 to learn about joining the Guardian Angels . . . Press 5 to get help from the Guardian Angels . . .

THE TELEPHONE CERTAINLY HAS COME A LONG WAY FROM WHEN ALEXANDER Graham Bell first bellowed, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" into his newfangled device. These days, Bell wouldn't waste his time shouting for Watson's help -- he'd call a 900 number like the Guardian Angel Action Line, press the "5" on his touch-tone phone, and then wait for a dozen guys in red berets to leap to his aid.

Over the past decade, the explosive growth of 976 services (and more recently, 900 services, the long-distance equivalent) has transformed Bell's invention from a simple gab box into, well, a pretty complex gab box. The "audiotex" industry, as over-the-phone information services prefer to be called, rang up an estimated $250 million in income last year, and analysts expect it to reach $2 billion to $3 billion by 1992.

Explicit dial-a-porn or "phone sex" lines have gotten the most media attention, and not without reason. From the beginning, adult services have been the hot lines of audiotex, particularly the 976 exchange. But while sex is still a strong draw, the industry has begun to diversify. Already, the range of services available through the telephone is positively line-boggling. You can hear messages from such diverse personalities as baseball player Jose Canseco and the Easter bunny. (Canseco's line isn't as entertaining, but the bunny can't hit the long ball.) Press a few buttons and you can confess your darkest secrets to total strangers, get tips on overhauling your car's transmission, find out the weather on the moon, hear last night's baseball scores or gab with a dozen people at once. With audiotex, not only is the medium the message, it can also be the massage -- for $1.95 a minute, you can have someone give you a "verbal massage," which, I can vouch from experience, is a little like trying to tickle yourself.

There are even 976 game shows. I, for one, was thrilled to discover that you can pick up the phone and play a round of "Let's Make A Deal," hosted by -- who else? -- Monty Hall.

Hi, I'm Monty Hall. Welcome to "Let's Make a Deal." You have a chance to win great prizes, including this month's grand prize, a trip for two to the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. But there are other great prizes too, including jewelry, appliances, cookware, radios, luggage, televisions, stereos and more. So, let's get ready to play . . . On TV, I used to ask contestants if they had an unusual object. Since I can't do that now, I'm going to ask you a question: What kind of animals were the three little pigs? Press 1 if they were whales; press 2 if they were porpoises; press 3 if they were pigs . . . You're right!

It's good to see that the phone version of "Let's Make a Deal" aspires to roughly the same intellectual level as its television counterpart, though I suppose to get the complete effect, I should have dressed up as a giant turnip before placing the call. Other than that, the phone "Deal" is fairly true-to-television. Callers who manage to get past Monty's brain-busting question are then invited to choose door number one, two, or three by pushing the appropriate button on their telephone, with a fabulous prize lurking behind only one of the doors. I was unable to guess the correct door in four tries, which led me to believe that the main "deal" Monty really cares about is billing me for the call -- $2 for the first minute, and $1 for each additional minute.

Then there are the Guardian Angels, who provide a 900 phone service that's a good deal more complex than the group itself. Callers to the Angels' Action Line who press "4," for example, are greeted by a Brooklyn-accented voice giving the straight dope on the group's strict membership requirements:

The Guardian Angels are not looking for Rambo or Ramboeena, Dirty Harry or Dirty Harriet. A lot of people will come to us initially, fill out the application, and they've got all the furniture upstairs, but it's arranged in the wrong rooms. Not only are you going to have to fill out an extensive application, be 16 years of age or over, but you're gonna have to either be working, going to school or proving to us you're looking for work and not shooting dice and sipping wine half your life . . .

While it's comforting to know that the streets aren't being patrolled by wine-sipping dice shooters with no sense of furniture placement, the Guardian Angel Action Line is proof that while anyone can set up a 900 number, perhaps not everyone should. Organizations that look efficient when they send out a typed letter can sound pretty hopeless over the phone. But that's not likely to stop many phone entrepreneurs from setting up new 976 and 900 services anyway.

In this heady growth period, before the inevitable industry-wide shakeout, there seems no limit to the potential of audiotex. Can it be long before someone offers 976-LIFE, the exciting new interactive phone service that allows callers to live a rich and fulfilling life entirely through their telephone? First, you're 976-BORN, you 976-GROW, go out on a 976-DATE, fall in 976-LOVE, maybe have a 976-BABY or two, and finally 976-KICK. In the Brave New World of audiotex, there will be only three certainties in life: death, taxes and a really big phone bill. 976-PAST

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . .

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . .

-- Approximate transcript of a recent call to 976-LUST

PROVIDERS OF NONSEXUAL AUDIOTEX SERVICES ARGUE that lines such as 976-LUST are part of the 976-PAST, and in some respects, they are right. The future of audiotex clearly rests with the companies that are already using the phone to provide product information, stock reports and news updates and, in some cases, to sell merchandise. Still, the audiotex industry has yet to shake its checkered past, built on a foundation of sex, sex and more sex. For the first several years of audiotex's history, the most popular dial-it programs were explicit adult "fantasy" lines and dating services, programs that still do very well today. It may be a sign of the times that the first use for a new form of communication invariably turns out to be sex -- imagine Gutenberg using his invention to run off nothing but skin mags.

Actually, the audiotex boom that began in the 1980s is more a triumph of marketing than of technology. Most of the hardware that sends information through the phone and bills customers has been in place for years. The deregulation of the phone company, perhaps more than any other event, has opened new vistas of profitability.

Today's 976 and 900 services are descendants of the time and temperature messages that many local phone companies have provided for their customers for decades. The first 900 service was developed in 1980 by AT&T to give television networks a way of instantly polling their viewers. ABC asked viewers of the 1980 presidential debate to call one of two 900 numbers to vote on whether they thought Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan won. (The Great Communicator did, appropriately.) A year later, NASA was the first to send information through a 900 service, broadcasting its conversations with space shuttle astronauts.

In 1986, the 976 boom really began in earnest -- and almost by accident -- when High Society, a New York porn magazine, set up a single answering machine that played a 58-second message promoting its next issue. When the machine unexpectedly received thousands of calls, the magazine quickly added more lines and turned the messages into adult "fantasies," scripted by staff members who were churning out the same sort of copy for the magazine. The fantasies, most of them read by Gloria Leonard, the magazine's husky-voiced publisher and a former X-rated actress, quickly became an industry phenomenon. At its height, the magazine had 100 answering machines quietly spinning away in a closet, fielding tens of thousands of phone calls every day.

High Society's phone seductresses were particularly popular because they were disembodied creations of the caller's imagination. "It's true that in a lot of cases, the woman passing herself off over the phone as the luscious 22-year-old blonde was really an overweight 45-year-old mother of five," Leonard admits today. "But in answer to that, I would always say, 'Can you imagine what some of these guys who call all the time look like?' " Last year, the magazine sold its network of 976 services in more than a dozen cities for $10 million, not bad for a business built on heavy breathing.

Washington was slow to pick up the 976 habit. It wasn't until the fall of 1987 that the D.C. Public Service Commission permitted prerecorded adult and live party lines to go onto the 976 interchange, followed by a similar ruling by officials in suburban Maryland. (Virginia, to this day, doesn't permit 976 services, although customers can use 900 long-distance numbers, which cannot be regulated by local phone companies.)

It didn't take long, however, for the phone party to go sour. Many parents worried that their children could listen to explicit phone sex. This concern turned to horror when some parents discovered that not only could their children listen, but they were, over and over. One Southeast Washington teenager surprised her mother with an $8,863 phone bill based on 3,537 calls made in a two-month period.

The controversy put local phone companies such as C&P in the uncomfortable position of profiting from people providing sexual services, an activity known as pimping when it's done on the street. Although the phone company has changed its relationship with 976 providers, C&P initially was a de facto partner in phone sex ventures, since it received a percentage of the phone entrepreneur's take. (C&P currently bills 976 providers at two flat rates: For live and adult-oriented services, the rate is 17.5 cents for the first minute and 10 cents for each additional; all other 976 services are charged 11.5 cents for the first minute and 4 cents for each additional 30 seconds. Since most 976 lines charge customers $2 to $3 for the first minute, they've already made their profit by the time the caller gets to the first menu.)

Two years ago, in response to public outcry over phone sex, C&P made several changes in the way it handled 976. First, the company separated the audiotex charges from the rest of the customer's bill and printed a disclaimer: "If you dispute this charge and do not pay it until the dispute is resolved, C&P will not disconnect your service as long as you pay all other charges . . . "

In addition, C&P banished all sexually explicit and live messages to a new exchange, 915. Customers who want access to the 915 exchange must request it in writing, something, not surprisingly, that few have bothered to do. The moves essentially destroyed 976 phone sex in the Washington area without banning it outright, which might not have survived a court challenge. (Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited "obscene" and "indecent" telephone services, saying the law was too broad. In response, Congress passed a Jesse Helms-sponsored bill -- not yet tested in court -- that prohibits obscene telephone services but permits indecent communications between adults.) Currently, the 70 or so 976 services operating locally provide dating services, sports and lottery information, romance stories, confession lines, trivia games and loan information -- but none features explicit four-letter-word sex or live conversations. Only one 915 provider remains operating in the area, a live "party line" called the Talk Show.

The First Law of Pornography states that porn can neither be created nor destroyed -- it simply changes form. Thus, many local 976 adult lines have become national 900 adult lines. But industry experts expect most of the growth in audiotex over the next few years to be in nonexplicit 900 services. Some big names -- Dow Jones and American Express among them -- now have their own 900 numbers to provide customers with information such as stock market updates and international weather reports for travelers.

Magazines and newspapers are natural players in the audiotex game, since they are already in the information business. The New York Times provides a 900 service that gives as many as three answers to its crossword puzzles, a helpful if somewhat vertigo-inducing experience. (The Washington Post has a new audiotex venture called Post-Haste that is not a 900 number and is intended to be supported by recorded advertising. It provides stock, news, weather and sports updates, and covers some stories that break too late to be included in early editions of the paper.)

Already, the audiotex market has become crowded enough that some of the participants are tripping over each other. USA Today was recently slapped with an $11 million lawsuit after printing a picture of the teenage singing group, the New Kids on the Block, and inviting readers to dial a 900 number to vote for their favorite member. The suit's primary complaint: The USA Today promotion cut into the profits of the Kids' own 900 numbers, which have logged more than 2 million calls in less than a year. When it comes to audiotex, everyone, it seems, wants to be the new kid on the block. 976-'FESS

THE VOICE ON THE "CONFESSION HOT LINE" WAS FLATLY matter-of-fact, only occasionally betraying a quiver of emotion:

Hello. My name is Don and I'm calling from Frederick, Maryland. I know this is going to sound surprising, but three months ago, I stabbed a girl to death. And you might think that in making this tape I'm setting myself up to be caught, but there are lots of guys named Don in Frederick. The girl I killed was working in a ladies' sportswear store. I often came by and talked to her when she was working alone, and one night when she was in the storeroom and we were talking, our conversation turned into an argument. And so I took out a knife that I have with me at all times and I killed her. And a few days later I realized that I had caused a lot of sadness, and I thought about turning myself in to the police. But whatever they do to me, that won't bring Tracey back. So I've decided that I better keep free, because we have the death penalty in Maryland. Thanks for listening. I'm sorry for what I did, but nothing can change it. Bye.

A tape of that call, made last June to a Las Vegas-based 900 "confession line" number, was forwarded to Frederick police by officials in Las Vegas, who had been alerted by a lawyer representing the phone service. The police had an unsolved murder that fit the description given by the caller -- Tracey Lynn Kirkpatrick, a 17-year-old honor student, had been stabbed to death in March 1989 at the clothing store where she worked.

"I listened to the tape over and over again, and I was convinced it was a sincere call," says Cpl. Barry Horner, the officer in charge of the investigation. "I kept playing the tape because I wanted to learn that voice cold. You never know if you're going to hear it again . . . "

Copies of the tape were given to four Frederick area radio stations, which played it on the anniversary of Kirkpatrick's death. Two hours later, a listener called the police and identified the voice. (The name the caller gave was someone who was already a suspect, though not a strong one.) Investigators confronted the suspect -- whose name turned out not to be Don -- and later took several items from him as evidence, including a hair sample. The case, however, remains unsolved.

Few phone confessions have such dramatic consequences. Nevertheless, getting callers to spill their guts over the phone -- or listening to others spill theirs, at $2 or more a pop -- is one of the hottest areas in audiotex today. One local service now advertises itself as "Not just another confession line."

Most confession lines follow the same format: Callers listen to a recording of several people's confessions, after which they are invited to record their own. In the past, most guilt-ridden evildoers would turn to a priest, minister or rabbi for absolution. But the forward-thinking sinners of the 1990s unburden themselves telephonically, with their penance conveniently charged to their monthly bill.

After listening to more of these lines than I'd care to confess, I came to believe that not everyone who calls a confession line is truthful. One local confession line inadvertently admits this in a lengthy recorded introduction, claiming at first that "these amazing confessions are all real and true," but later describing them as "amazing and sometimes even true confessions." (A lengthy recorded introduction, by the way, is the cornerstone of profitable audiotex, designed not so much to introduce callers to the service but to increase the amount of time customers must stay on the phone to get to the good stuff. One particularly profit-conscious local confession line subjects callers to a largely superfluous 90-second introduction, including two welcoming messages and detailed instructions, repeated twice, on how to skip or repeat confessions. By the time the first confession actually begins, the caller has already been billed for a two-minute call.)

Many of the sins confessed over the phone revolve around -- surprise -- sex, with the "I-had-sex-with-my-best-friend's-spouse" admission especially popular. I've heard this particular sin pop up on confession lines based in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Washington, an indication that either the act is very common, or that someone is relentlessly unburdening himself, nationwide.

But for every dozen or so smirking confessional tales about Paul Bunyanesque sexual exploits, a sincere voice will cut through the clutter. One female caller recently confessed in a world-weary voice: "I'd like to confess that I've put people and possessions before God, and because of that, I'm back on drugs and alcohol. And that makes me feel very, very sad and lonely."

Some callers occasionally try to fill the moral vacuum of telephonic confessionals by offering compassion and counsel to others. One recent local caller to "The Expose Line" left this response to a previous call:

Yeah, this is a message for J.J.: Look, buddy, you've got to look inside yourself and like what you see. Sometimes, people look inside themselves and don't like what they see, because there's evil there. If you look inside yourself and see evil, then you can't allow yourself to turn that hatred loose in the world. That's how we get mass murderers . . .

Like some other members of the clergy, the Rev. Thomas King, a theology professor at Georgetown University, was not aware of confession lines but says he can see how they answer a basic human need. "There's something about telling your sins to someone else that gives the confession a certain power, a kind of validity," says King. "We see this in related areas such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where there's a sort of public confession they make to a High- er Power." King was quick to note, though, that Catholics could not count a phone confession, even a sincere one, as the same as visiting a priest. 976-CHAT

THE ROOM HOUSING THE TALK CLUB isn't much bigger than a walk-in closet. Come to think of it, it is a walk-in closet. All of the equipment required to run the Talk Club, a 900 "party line," is tucked away in the corner of a storage closet in a Northern Virginia office. Twenty-four hours a day, a machine that looks like an oversize stereo amplifier clicks, flashes and whirs, tying together as many as 15 callers. The technology behind a system that allows so many to talk at once is truly remarkable, a shining testament to human ingenuity. Now, all the callers need is something to talk about.

Woman: Who's this?

Man: Grandma Man.

Woman: What'd you say about my grandma?

Man: No, I said 'Grandma Man.' That's my name. Who's this?

Woman: Tracy.

Man: How old are you, Tracy?

Woman: 22.

Man: Where do you live?

Woman: In Landover, behind the mall.

Man: Where behind the mall?

Woman: Behind the mall, behind the mall!

Man: What's your number?

Woman: I don't like giving my number out.

Man: Yeah, okay. {Hangs up}

Woman: Grandma Man? Grandma Man, are you still there? Grandma Man? Grandma Man? . . .

It would be unfair to imply that all of the conversation on telephone chat lines takes place at this level of sophistication; often it's even less insightful. But these "gab" services tap into other basic human needs -- to combat boredom and to be part of a community, even if it's one held together by wires and plastic. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan died well before the advent of gab numbers, but in his 1964 book Understanding Media, he foresaw their popularity. McLuhan viewed the telephone as "a form of communal participation," and noted that "no back fence {conversation} could begin to rival the degree of heated participation made possible by the party line." McLuhan's observation is confirmed by anecdotal evidence gathered by the audiotex industry -- most of the whopping phone bills racked up by 976 and 900 callers are made not by obsessed men continually calling explicit sex lines but by normal men and women who call party lines and then lose track of how long they've been yapping.

"I come in at 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes to check the equipment, and there'll still be half a dozen people on the line," says Sidney Balcom, whose firm provides the hardware for the Talk Club. "These lines are really a poor man's CB radio. A lot of the callers use 'handles' instead of their real names, just like CB users do. There's usually more men than women on the line, so when a woman comes on the line, all the men usually gang up on her and check her out, ask her a lot of questions."

A transcript of the typical party line conversation would look a bit like the Watergate transcripts, with lots of "unintelligibles" and "expletive deleteds." Adding to the confusion, the line quality tends to deteriorate with each new caller added.

Voice 1: My girlfriend's old . . .

Voice 2: What? . . .

Voice 3: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . .

Voice 1: I said, my girlfriend's old {unintelligible} . . .

Voice 2: {shouting} What? I can't hear you, someone's . . .

Voice 3: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . .

Voice 2: Hey, shut the {expletive} up, I'm trying to hear . . .

Voice 1: What? . . .

The only way to get anything out of listening to this stuff is to view these fragments as a metaphor for our inability to communicate with one another in the modern age, despite our technological advances. The warm afterglow of that insight usually lasts about a minute before the shouting gets really annoying and you have to hang up. But occasionally, persistent listening is rewarded. A lone fragment of conversation rises above the din, serving as the gab-line version of a haiku:

I'm not talking anymore

I've had enough of all of this talking

I'm just listening from now on . . .

The man supplying the phone lines for the Talk Club is none other than Dennis Sobin, the local sex entrepreneur, occa- sional libertarian mayoral candidate and, more recently, avid audiotexer. Say what you want about Sobin, he has an impresario's instinct about what sells, namely sex.

A list of Sobin's various phone ventures reads like a condensed history of audiotex. As soon as C&P approved 976 services, Sobin set up several adult "fantasy" lines on the cheap, with the fantasies duly acted out by his common-law wife, Eleanor Pohorylo. "I probably did more than 5,000 fantasy messages in all," Pohorylo says. "It got difficult after awhile to come up with new things. At the height of the service, we were changing the message several times a day, and I'd have to call in from a pay phone."

When the AIDS crisis hit, Sobin renamed his services "safe-sex fantasy lines," promoting them as a public service. When the controversy over dial-a-porn erupted, Sobin regrouped and set up the Talk Club on a 900 number. Unlike most party lines, the Talk Club doesn't charge per minute but bills callers $12.95 for a weekly membership. "It eliminates a lot of the public relations headaches," Sobin says. "Before, you had a lot of kids getting access to 976 numbers and running up a big bill. With the Talk Club, the most you can run up in a single week is $12.95. I think it's a great value."

Most talkers in the Talk Club sound like they are in their teens and early twenties. I even heard several young callers lower their voices to conspiratorial whispers at certain points, the universal Parent Alert. No doubt the Talk Club itself has been the subject of lively discussions in households all over the Washington area after mom and dad have seen Sobin's "great value" on the phone bill. 976-DUMB

SOME AUDIOTEX SERVICES ARE PROOF that not every technological breakthrough necessarily advances the species. Consider the Insult Line, part of a small but vocal segment of the 900 market:

What are you calling me for? You're like a losing court case -- absolutely no appeal! Your IQ is so low it's a negative number! Vampires hold garlic in front of your face! You're so ugly, a picture of you could shatter a picture of a mirror! You're about as popular as a leper at a health convention! The women you date are so ugly . . .

Of course, the real insult comes a month later when you realize you've been charged $2 a minute to hear shtick that even Shecky Greene would reject. This particular insult line -- appropriately based in New York City -- probably won't get many repeat callers, but as long as its proprietors are nimble, it doesn't need to. While more conventional information providers want to encourage repeat callers, less tasteful audiotex entrepreneurs work on the assumption they'll only be called once or twice by each caller. The idea is to attract as many first-time callers as possible with a flashy idea, and then change the program a few months later after the idea has burned itself out. Often, the service will be changed without warning, leading to rampant caller confusion. Callers to a local 976 number listed as an audiotex directory service, for example, must have been surprised to discover the Hip Hop Club Hot Line, "where you can talk live to Chuck Chill-Out and Cool Chip."

Some audiotex programs are so dumb, it's hard to imagine anyone staying on the line for the second minute, much less a second call. One local 976, which employs the reverse-psychology slogan "Please don't call this number" in its print ads, consists entirely of a woman moaning in various pitches at $2.98 a minute. C&P, showing a flair for euphemism, lists the moaning service as a "Romance Line."

Another local 976 service, the Gossip Line, promises callers an opportunity to eavesdrop on "what women talk about when they think no one is listening." Actually, the pre-recorded conversations on the Gossip Line are more like "what women talk about when they read from a really lame script." One obviously scripted scenario features two women supposedly talking over the phone about wanting to put warm mashed potatoes over each other, and then suddenly has the women in the same room doing just that, a daring suspension of both the laws of physics and the standards of good taste.

Other audiotex programs fail the smart test because the operators seem to be so enamored with the technology that they've forgotten to ask why anyone would pay for the service. Callers to the Pet Line, after being warned that the service "is not meant to take the place of proper veterinary care," are confronted with a mind-numbingly long menu of subject choices (For dogs and cats, press 1; for animal abuse, euthanasia, and traveling with your pets, press 2 . . .). By the time callers finally reach option 3, "First Aid Emergencies," Fido has long since choked on that chicken bone. My favorite snippet of Pet Line advice came in the "Opossums, Raccoons, and Skunks" subsection of the "Wild Animals as Pets" section: "Opossums, raccoons and skunks are very interesting animals indeed, but they do not make good pets."

976-DUHH.

But then, no one said information had to be interesting, or even relevant, to be sent over the phone. For the time being, the sheer novelty of the medium seems to override its content, like the tired old record album that sells like hot cakes when re-released on compact disc. Telephone entrepreneurs may well look back on these days as the Golden Age of audiotex, a time when people would pay $2 a minute to hear almost anything once. If P.T. Barnum were alive today, he'd no doubt have his own 976 number, secure in the knowledge that there's a sucker born every minute, and probably two born for each additional minute.

Tom McNichol last wrote for the Magazine on a Montgomery County bail bondsman.

NICKI, DON'T USE THAT NUMBER

At first, Nicki didn't think anything of it when a strange man phoned her one evening, asking for her by name. "My name's Nicki, but you must have the wrong number," she told him. When a second person called a short while later, she passed it off as a creepy coincidence. By the time the third stranger called -- and you can almost hear the scary theme music surging at this point -- Nicki began to suspect something.

"Where did you get my name?" she demanded.

"What do you mean, 'Where did I get it?' " the caller replied. "Your name's on the voice bulletin board."

It was Nicki's first introduction to the surprisingly tenacious world of 976, a world she's not likely to forget -- or forgive. Over the next month, she would be deluged by more than 100 calls from strange men -- and even one strange woman -- all of whom wanted to talk to someone, anyone named Nicki.

As Nicki would later discover, all of the callers had gotten her name and number from Voice Central, a local 976 "bulletin board." (Callers pay $2 to hear recorded messages from six people, after which they can leave their own message to be added to the recording.) The problem was, Nicki hadn't left her name and number on the bulletin board -- an unknown female caller had. The prank is the high-tech equivalent of scrawling "FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL NICKI" on the lavatory wall. But as Nicki can attest, a voice bulletin board has much more extensive reach. And scrubbing your name off the electronic wall is not easy.

"There was one guy who was really persistent," Nicki recalls. "He'd call, and I'd hang up, and then he'd call again three or four times in a row. He started saying things like 'I know where you live. I'm going to come over there and see you.' "

On nights when relentless callers harassed her, Nicki would turn off the phone's ringer, even though it meant missing legitimate calls. But it was hard to escape. Her phone -- a modern model containing a tube of pink neon -- flashed every time a call came through, even with the ringer off. Some nights, Nicki sat in the darkened apartment with her face bathed in flashing pink neon and wondered why her life had suddenly become an episode of "Twin Peaks." When the rogue calls did not abate, she finally called C&P Telephone to ask about changing her number. She said she was told it would cost her $21.

A C&P spokesperson says that company policy is to help the customer find the source of abusive, obscene or threat- ening calls. If the problem persists, the customer may then request that the number be changed -- free of charge. While Nicki was still wrestling with her problem, the strange phone calls suddenly dropped off. Her name had been taken off the bulletin board recording, after more than four weeks.

Warren Miller, the operator of Voice Central, at first doubted it was possible that his system had caused Nicki's troubles, saying that all phone numbers left on his bulletin board are verified. But follow-up calls to other numbers fea- tured on Voice Central uncovered two other women who said their names and numbers, like Nicki's, had appeared without their authorization. Another woman, whose recorded message stated that she was "desperate for any man," left a phone number that was out of service. Miller dismissed these examples as anomalies.

"We take hundreds of thousands of phone calls," Miller said. "If sometimes not all of them meet the standards we've set for ourselves, I'm sorry. But I don't feel like I've hurt anybody. There was no formal complaint made. We always respond promptly to any complaint the phone company forwards to us."

In any event, it's clear that innocent parties harassed by unwanted calls have their work cut out for them -- especially if they, like Nicki, haven't identified the source. There's no public directory of 976 services and their owners, and C&P customarily declines to release such information, unless there is a complaint about a specific 976 service.

Nicki, for her part, is just glad she doesn't have to fear the sound of a ringing phone anymore.

"I can't tell you how great it feels not to worry about who's going to be on the other end of the phone," she says. "It's just been so peaceful around here lately."

-- T.M.