78ºF

Burner phone apps used to make harassing calls

Woman received hundreds of unwanted calls from different numbers

ORLANDO, Fla. – For nearly six months, Kathy Lewis says a mysterious man has been bombarding her cellphone and her home phone with hundreds of harassing calls.

Most of those calls originated from different numbers, which are displayed on the caller ID of Lewis' phones.

"There are so many numbers," Lewis said.  "For every number I block, he calls back with a different one."

Although Lewis has not yet identified who is making those harassing calls, News 6 has discovered how he's maintained his anonymity by calling from different phone numbers.

Many of the calls to Lewis' phones were placed using mobile apps designed to hide the caller's identity, a News 6 investigation has found.

Known as "burner phone" apps, the software serves a legitimate purpose by allowing users to establish multiple phone lines on their mobile device, usually at a lower cost than a traditional cellular service provider, while also providing private phone numbers that are not easily traceable.

But like many other forms of technology, the apps can be used in illegal ways.

"We are very sorry to hear our service was misused by a criminal, which is definitely not what our services were designed for," said Amy Nicole Hernandez, chief financial officer for TextMe, one of the apps used to call Lewis' phones. "Our terms and conditions very strictly prohibit the use of our service for illegal activities, abuse, fraud or anything of that nature."

Woman receives hundreds of harassing calls, text messages

The unwanted calls to Lewis' home landline and her cellphone began in March, she said.

Since then, she claims she has received several hundred, most originating from a different phone number.

"(He'll call) nine in a row, 10 in a row," Lewis said.  "When I'd ask questions, he'd hang up."

"Hi, this is Danny from Walmart.  We got an order for Kathy Lewis," the man said in one of the earliest voicemail messages left on Lewis' cellphone. 

Although the caller knew her name, Lewis suspected he was not really a Walmart employee.

"The calls were in the middle of the night.  Two o'clock, three o'clock in the morning they'd call," she said.

A man with a very similar voice also left several messages inquiring about an appliance.

"I'm calling about the Kenmore washing machine ad you posted on Craigslist," one voicemail stated.

"We didn't put any ad on Craigslist," said Lewis, who noted that each time the caller used a different name.

"He has called and left messages as Adam, Norman, Billy, Danny, Teresa, he used a female (name)," Lewis said.

In some of the voicemail messages Lewis played for News 6, the caller made moaning noises or whistles.

"It's just strange things," she said.

Besides calling her phones, someone has also been sending Lewis unusual text messages.

In one lengthy text exchange, the sender typed out the nonsensical lyrics from a recent Kayne West song.

"Poopy do scoop.  Scoopy de do woop. Woopty scoopty poop. Poop de scoopty," the text read.

On at least one occasion, Lewis claims the caller contacted both her landline house phone and her cellphone simultaneously.

"Both phones were ringing at the same time," she said.  "And it was all these bizarre numbers that I didn't know. I started to get almost hysterical."

None of the text or voicemail messages reviewed by News 6 were threatening in nature, but Lewis said the constant harassment has frightened her.

"I'm very frustrated.  And scared," she said. 

Although Lewis suspects one particular acquaintance might be the one harassing her, she told News 6 she has no evidence that individual is responsible and acknowledges it may be someone else.

As a result of the harassment, Lewis has changed the number of her landline phone but she refuses to obtain a new cellphone number.

"It's quite a hassle to change your number," she said. "I don't feel I should have to change my number. He should stop what he's doing."

Calls originate from 'burner phone' apps

When a News 6 reporter called back the phone numbers left behind on Lewis' caller ID, most were answered by automated voicemail systems used by various burner phone apps.

"You have reached a TextMe number," said the outgoing message on several of the numbers called.

"You have reached your friend's voicemail," said another recording associated with the TextMe app.

According to the TextMe website, the app can be used to make free calls and texts to any phone.  

TextMe subscribers choose their own phone number by selecting a specific area code from any state and then picking one of at least three phone numbers from a list.   

Users can also select a phone number from more than a dozen other countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and Malaysia.

TextMe users are allowed to set up as many different phone numbers on their mobile device as they like and switch between them, according to the company's website.

TextMe also allows subscribers to delete, or "burn," a phone number so callers can no longer reach the user at that number.  A burned number may later be assigned to a different user's phone.

"TextMe provides a communication service to millions of users across the U.S. and Canada," Hernandez said. "We take a multitude of programmatic and manual measures to detect and stop abuse of our service. As a company we take these cases very seriously and work diligently to combat these bad users by responding to all complaints and working with law enforcement agencies."

At least two of the calls to Lewis' phone were placed by numbers originating from a similar app called TextNow, according to the numbers' automated voicemail messages.

TextNow users can change their phone number once every 15 days, according to the company's website.

"Unfortunately one of the drawbacks of being a public platform is that there will always be 'bad actors' and this problem is not exclusive to TextNow," said Stacey DeSantis, the public relations manager for TextNow. "That being said, we take these complaints very seriously and have robust measures in place to ensure customers who are being harassed or are harassing other customers are resolved."

Both companies provide links on their websites for people to file complaints if they believe they are receiving harassing calls from the apps.

[Click here to report harassment to TextNow]

[Click here to report harassment to TextMe]

Although neither company will provide information about its users to people who file complaints, TextNow and TextMe representatives said they will work with law enforcement agencies that contact the companies.

Woman receives harassing call from her 'son'

In most cases, a random 10-digit phone number would appear in Lewis' caller ID any time the mysterious caller would contact her, she said.

If Lewis did not recognize the number, she would ignore the call.

However, on one occasion Lewis said it appeared a family member was trying to reach her.

"The caller ID had my son's name on (it)," Lewis said.

But it wasn't her son on the other end of the line.

"(The male caller) said, 'Hi, it's Teresa!'," according to Lewis.

News 6 was unable to identify which specific mobile app may have been used to make that phone call.

However, several popular apps allow callers to choose a specific, customized number to appear in the recipient's caller ID.

Known as "spoofing", the practice is not illegal unless the caller is using the number with the intent to defraud or harm the recipient.

One such app is SpoofCard.  According to the company's website, the app can be used to display a different phone number "to protect yourself or pull a prank."

If the person calling Lewis knew her son's 10-digit phone number, the caller could have used an app like SpoofCard to make it appear as if the call was originating from that number.

Since Lewis had stored her son's number in her cellphone's contact list, his name would have appeared on the caller ID as the spoofed call was being received.

"The SpoofCard service does allow people to protect their identity by changing their caller ID," said Ethan Garr, vice president of product for SpoofCard.  "We have customers who are doctors, for example, who use the service to show their hospital or clinic's caller ID when calling patients after hours from their home or personal mobile phones. "

Garr told News 6 his company uses automated and manual processes to quickly terminate accounts that violate the app's terms of service.  

SpoofCard representatives also work with harassment victims and law enforcement, he said.

"While we don't shy away from the fun and prankster nature of SpoofCard, we also educate customers as to what is and is not appropriate use," Garr said.  "We never encourage nefarious uses."

It is unclear whether the person harassing Lewis specifically used SpoofCard.

After News 6 discovered other "burner phone" apps were being used to contact Lewis, she contacted those companies to report the possible abuse.

Lewis has also filed a complaint with local law enforcement.

"(Our detectives) indicated these types of cases are challenging. However, they are looking into the case," said Capt. Carlos Torres, a spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff's Office.

According to Torres, the agency can occasionally identify the caller through a legal process using an email provider, cell carrier or mobile app associated with the number.

"We always encourage a commonsense approach," Torres said. "Screen your calls, particularly those from unfamiliar area codes. Some phone carriers, such as Verizon, are now offering telephone ID services that help identify some of the companies hosting the incoming numbers."

Torres points out that people receiving unwanted solicitation calls can file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission.

Lewis is hoping law enforcement or the various app companies will identify and stop the man who continues to call her.

"Shut that down," she said.
 


About the Author: