Columnist

Beth Blevins did not expect to be running a discount erectile-dysfunction pill mill, but life sometimes takes a funny turn.

“People called our home phone and said, ‘Are you getting paid by Viagra?’ ” said Beth, a freelance writer who lives in Ashton, Md.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Earlier this year, Beth decided to alter her selection of cable television channels. She had her reasons: Her son is a stand-up comic, and he was going to be appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Network, on the talk show hosted by T.D. Jakes.

Beth added the channel long enough to see her son, and then decided earlier this month that she wanted to lower her cable bill by removing a few channels, including OWN.

“I mostly just watch PBS anyway,” Beth told me.

Beth has her cable television through Verizon. She called Verizon and a helpful man there said, sure, he could change her cable TV package, but what Beth should really do is change her landline phone to a digital landline phone. It would be cheaper.

Shedding a few channels and converting from a traditional landline phone to a digital one would drop Beth’s Verizon bill from $218 a month to $175 a month, he promised.

So that’s what Beth did. The man from Verizon said her landline phone number might be unavailable for a few hours when the switch was made the first week of August.

This did not trouble Beth. What did trouble Beth was the fact that her landline phone didn’t come back. This would have been more of an annoyance than a catastrophe — Beth has a cellphone — except for one thing, and that thing was the recorded message that greeted callers who tried to reach Beth on her landline.

“Thanks for calling,” the message began. “The original number you dialed is no longer in service. But it’s great that you called. You can save big right now with unbelievable deals you can’t find anywhere else simply by pressing 5.”

Curious, Beth pressed 5.

“If you’ve tried Viagra, then you know the amazing benefits. But you also know the crazy high price. Now you don’t have to pay $15 for a single pill at the pharmacy. Healthy Man can get you huge discounts.”

Beth was invited to press 1 again. She did.

“You are about to save over $500 on Viagra,” said the recorded voice.

“So that was my phone number,” Beth told me.

After pressing 1 a final time, Beth reached a live person. It was a woman who said she worked at a pharmacy in India and was ready to take Beth’s Viagra order.

“Why do you have my phone number?” Beth asked.

The woman was indignant. “You called me, ma’am,” she said.

Beth called Verizon, who told her that her phone had been disconnected. No duh, said Beth. She said she hadn’t wanted it disconnected, but what she really didn’t want was that Viagra message.

After about a day, Verizon was able to change the message to the traditional “The number you have reached is not in service.”

Eventually, Beth got her landline phone back.

I asked Verizon what happened. Had Beth’s phone been spoofed by scammers? No, said Verizon spokesman John Johnson, who tracked down the problem and discovered a cascading series of errors, to wit:

Beth’s phone was disconnected and not reconnected. Her disconnected number was mistakenly considered a business number. Verizon has a vendor who places what amount to ads on disconnected business numbers. When customers call, they hear a message that includes something like: “Since the number you have called is not in service, please stay on the line for alternative businesses.”

These so-called “direct merchant referral” messages are supposed to pop up only after the number has been disconnected for 30 days.

Finally, the vendor allowed that seedy pill-mill ad.

“We’re working with our vendor to find out how that ad was provided and to make sure it’s removed from their ad inventory,” John said.

On behalf of Verizon, John apologized to Beth “for the inconvenience and for any embarrassment it may have caused her. We are similarly embarrassed and we’ve taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

And those steps are?

“We’re revisiting the rules about business customers only, that numbers must age 30 days and that the advertisers must abide certain content rules,” John said.

Beth said she still doesn’t have a digital landline phone, but she’s okay with that.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.