From abusive language and heavy breathing to an endless stream of telemarketing calls, certain types of telephone behavior are unpleasant and may constitute harassment, in certain cases. In many states, phone harassment is a criminal offense, and callers may be subject to fines, jail time or both if convicted.
What Is Phone Harassment?
The exact definition depends on state law, but the term generally covers any type of unsolicited telephone call that’s obscene, threatening or unwanted, or is made with the intention to harass or annoy. Anyone who places calls to deliberately upset, annoy or threaten the victim may be guilty of phone harassment, which is a form of bullying.
Phone harassment may be a one-time call or a series of calls. The caller might know the recipient, or the harassment could be the result of robocalls and spam. There is no single cause or explanation but generally, if the caller intends to intimidate, threaten or annoy the victim during the call, then the behavior may be considered harassment.
Read More: How to Report Phone Harassment
Examples of Phone Harassment
- Repeatedly calling at inconvenient times, despite requests to stop.
- Making threatening or intimidating comments.
- Using obscene language.
- Breathing heavily or remaining silent.
- Blocking the caller's number or refusing to identify himself over the phone.
- Pretending to be someone else.
- Attempting to access the victim’s personal or financial information over the phone.
- Making robocalls and spam calls, which often have a fraudulent intent.
- Making repeated telemarketing calls, unsolicited sales calls or debt collection calls, especially after the victim has requested not to be contacted again.
What Laws Protect Against Phone Harassment?
Victims of telemarketing cold calls are protected by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). This act does not stop the calls, but it does restrict the hours during which telemarketers can call private households, and it limits the use of robocalls and pre-recorded messages. By law, telemarketers must honor the national “do not call” list of recipients who do not wish to be called, with fines and other penalties for violations. Victims should report TCPA complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.
For other types of phone harassment, the legal position varies from state to state. In Texas, for example, making a call with the intent to “harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another” is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail. In California, phone harassment is the crime of "annoying phone calls." A conviction could land the caller in county jail for up to six months with a fine up to $1,000.
In extreme cases, a series of harassing phone calls could be considered stalking, and threatening calls may meet the criteria for the offense of making criminal threats. These are greater charges with greater penalties. It depends on the circumstances of the call.
What to Do About Phone Harassment
The best thing to do is tell the police. Local law enforcement can determine whether the behavior constitutes phone harassment or a related offense under state law. Ideally, the victim will gather evidence of the harassment such as the name or gender of the caller, dates and times of the calls and what was said.
The problem should also be reported to the victim’s phone service provider. Often, the police and phone company can identify the caller, and the police can pass the matter to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.
Phone harassment is a general term that describes any kind of unsolicited or unwanted telephone call that's threatening, annoying or obscene. Many types of telephone behavior have the potential to meet the criteria for harassment.
- Trapcall: Phone Harassment 101: The Essential Guide to Stop Threatening Calls
- Investopedia: Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA)
- Texas Penal Code: § 42.07. Harassment
- Criminal Defense Lawyer: Texas Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences
- Shouse California Law Group: The Crime of "Annoying Phone Calls"