Stupid traveler tricks

Why would someone make dozens of phone calls to the same local number from my hotel room?

Published August 21, 2000 7:50PM (EDT)

I've been wandering the globe for 25 years. You'd think that after a quarter-century, I'd have figured this travel business out. But no-o-o-o-o, I still do things that make my 9-year-old son wince.

Here's the latest:

I was in Los Angeles recently for a little meeting -- no, not that little meeting. (And no, I will not run.) It was actually a meeting of travel professionals, public relations people who make a living representing hotels, amusements and destinations to journalists and to the public.

I had been invited as a travel expert -- someone who's been around long enough to tell people what they should know and shouldn't do. So I gave my presentation and attended some enlightening and entertaining panels and receptions and dinners and it was all silky smooth until the night before I was due to check out.

Sometime during my last day in a hotel, I usually call up my account on the in-room TV just to make sure I haven't inadvertently been charged for a dozen $6 mini-bar Cokes or someone hasn't signed a $300 dinner tab to my room number.

I remoted my account onto the screen. Everything looked fine for the first day of my stay, Aug. 6, and for the beginning of Aug. 7. Then something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Aug. 7 started out with a few phone calls I'd made locally to set up appointments and check on some restaurants, then moved onto a couple of local phone calls I'd made to access my e-mail, then some calls I'd made to New York and the Bay Area, and then one final call to check e-mail again -- about a dozen calls in all.

The line charges on the bill were conveniently numbered, and everything seemed to make sense up to this point, line 20.

I flipped down to the next screen and had to blink a few times. Something was wrong with my TV set. The screen was simply filled with this notation, line after line reading:

AUG 07 // Telephone Local // 362-0177 // $1.00.
AUG 07 // Telephone Local // 362-0177 // $1.00.
AUG 07 // Telephone Local // 362-0177 // $1.00.
AUG 07 // Telephone Local // 362-0177 // $1.00.
AUG 07 // Telephone Local // 362-0177 // $1.00.

Twenty lines in all. You get the idea.

I scrolled back up to the first page -- it was all there just as before, up to item #20. I scrolled back to the second page and my eyes swam again in a sea of Telephone Local charges. I scrolled down and the third page was the same -- full of AUG 07 // Telephone Local // 362-0177 // $1.00. Dozens of them! Reproducing like rabbits! I went to the fourth page -- and it was the same! There was something Borgesian, Escherian, Kafkaesque -- hell, Candid Camerian! -- about this. The number was the same one I'd called to access my e-mail. But I hadn't accessed my e-mail that many times!

Computer error, I thought. The computer-printer connection somehow got caught and just kept spewing out the same line. Or some kind of "ghost" -- hadn't I read about computer ghosts somewhere? -- had entered into the system and burned this same line into the memory banks of the computer and it had just gone haywire. That was it. I glanced at the clock: 12:45 a.m. It was too late to call the front desk and check. I would have to wait until morning.

But just for the horror of it, I went on scrolling. I passed another page and a half of Telephone Locals before the account righted itself and went back to telephone calls I had really made, one on Aug. 7 and the rest on Aug. 8. This was even more unsettling.

Bright and bleary the next morning, I called the front desk. "Hello, this is Mr. George in the Nincompoop Suite. I believe there's been something of a computer glitch in my account. Yes, if you look at it you'll see line after line after line of local telephone charges for calls that I did not make. Yes. On Aug. 7, that's right. You see them? Yes, there are really a lot of them, aren't there? Just line after line. No, I did not make them.

"No, I did not make any of them. At least, I don't recall making any of them. The ones on Aug. 8, I did make, yes, and the last one on Aug. 7. You'll request a printout from the control room? I see. And how will that help exactly? Ah, you'll request a printout of the times when the calls were made, so we can check them. Splendid! Thank you."

I threw my clothes into my lovely, laudable three-wheeled Ciao Chariot and strode confidently down to the front desk. The printout would certainly solve the mystery, I thought.

"Hello, Mr. George!" a woman at the front desk chirpily greeted me. "Have you enjoyed your stay at our hotel?"

"Absolutely!" I replied with all the bravado I could muster, but I couldn't help noticing that at the words "Mr. George" another woman at the desk had scurried away to confer with a colleague -- and was even now walking hesitantly toward us bearing a folded pile of paper.

"You are Mr. George?"

It seemed a bit too late to pretend that I wasn't, and sudden amnesia seemed too complicated, so I nodded meekly in agreement. "Here are your phone charges, Mr. George," said she, unfurling a magnificent manuscript that would have made an ancient papyrus poet proud.

"But I didn't make all these phone calls!" I sputtered.

"Well, let's see," said the very efficient and comforting woman who had originally greeted me, as she took the epic tenderly from my hands. Partners in detective practice now, we both peered intently at the printout, trying to discern some kind of pattern or clue.

The times were listed on the pages, and I noticed that the first suspect call was made at 7 p.m., shortly after I'd left my room to go to dinner. Someone had slipped into my room and made a series of local calls, all to the same number, all lasting just long enough to incur a $1 charge.

"How long can you talk for $1?" I asked.

"Actually, any call you make is charged $1, even if the call does not go through. It's a basic service charge," she said, evenly.

"So even if the call doesn't go through, you still get charged for the call?" I asked, adrift in naiveti.

"Yes, that is our policy."

This illumined things in a new light. I put my figurative detective hat back on and peered again at the times. An uncanny pattern quickly emerged: 7:00, 7:05, 7:10, 7:15, 7:20, 7:25 ... On it continued, for pages and pages, like clockwork (you might say), until midnight, when I returned from dinner and phoned my San Francisco office number to check voicemail.

Then, in a flash, it hit me. Can you guess what it was?

Tell me what you think -- and I'll tell you what really happened, and how the hotel responded, next week.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

MORE FROM Don George

Related Topics ------------------------------------------