Last Friday, I received my first crank call from the Internet. I picked up my phone at work and heard what I thought was unsolicited phone spam.
"Ever since I started working here, I've been watching you," said the computer-generated female voice, tripping over the words, stressing incorrect syllables like a drunken directory assistance operator. "You work so hard. That is why I like you."
OK, I thought, flattery. But what are they selling? Massages? A new job?
But then the call took a turn for the worse.
"You must work so hard in bed as well." Uh-oh, I thought, fearing where this one-way conversation was heading. Still, it's not often that a computer comes on to you, so out of curiosity, I kept listening.
The voice continued: "Meet me at the water fountain in 15 minutes and I will show you what I've got."
You don't want to know how that sentence ended. Let's just say it was a male boast that I haven't heard since the high school locker room.
Have all the advances in mixing the telephone with the Web come to this? Later I learned that I'd received this thanks to a bored friend via a Web-based voice-messaging service called notifyUS.com. The free service essentially turns e-mail into voice mail. You choose a telephone number to call and type in a message that a computerized voice will then read aloud when the phone is picked up.
There are all kinds of valid uses for this service: "wake-up calls, for one," says Ajay Aiyar, president of the 10-month-old company which has 15,000 users. You could also use the service to send out reminders for meetings, or to call your friends to tell them that you're online and want to chat.
But my friend had another use in mind: revenge. A few months ago, I sent around eCrush messages to a dozen of my friends -- encouraging them to believe that they had secret admirers. This juvenile phone message wasn't spam, but rather a crank-call payback. My friend later told me that he and some of his colleagues at work were using NotifyUS.com's "1-minute demo" to relive their youth.
Imagine calling the jock from high school who used to beat you up. You could use an old standby -- "Is there a John there? No? Then how do you go to the bathroom!" He'll never know the call came from you, thanks to the notifyUS.com voice, which sounds nothing like you (or anyone human, for that matter). If that's too childish, you could take a more adult approach. Send him the message that you're sure he's amounted to nothing while you've become a dot-com millionaire.
If you're above such crank calls, you could amuse yourself by using the service to call your future self. Since the site lets you schedule messages up to three years in advance, it can be a time capsule. "Three years ago," you might write in a message to the future you, "your cellphone didn't fit in your pocket without bulging, and Napster was the music industry's great Satan. Have things changed?"
All I ask is that you don't use notifyUS.com for spam. Aiyar says the company can block annoying callers. Just let them know who's bothering you with their sales pitches or crank calls. But considering how easy it is to fake an online identity, this isn't much protection. They could simply switch e-mail accounts and continue to pester you.
As I learned, if you give someone free phone calls, and the chance to disguise themselves with a computerized voice, the options are endless -- and can be disgusting.