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Phone can be tool to harass

A Largo man was charged with aggravated stalking after police say he left 50 messages, many of them harassing, on his ex-girlfriend's answering machine, police said.

John James O'Connor is free on bail and awaits a hearing after his July 9 arrest.

He is accused of making nearly 60 calls, in some of which he threatened to punch the woman in the face, Largo police spokesman Mac McMullen said.

"Judging by what was found, it was serious enough to charge the individual and take him to jail," McMullen said.

O'Connor disputes the claims. He said he did not call 60 times and his ex-girlfriend owes him money. He only called back repeatedly because she was out-of-town and not answering the phone. The situation is simply a misunderstanding, he told the Times.

Harassing telephone calls are a widespread problem in Pinellas County.

Between July 1, 1999, and July 1, 2000, the Sheriff's Office received 1,268 reports of harassing phone calls, an average of 3.47 reports a day. For the same period, Largo police received 419 reports of harassing phone calls.

The figure is consistent with recent years, and the reports are from people who might have received just one harassing phone call or dozens before filing the report. They range from calls where the person says nothing, to the extreme cases when the caller threatens the life of the person on the other end.

Effects from harassing phone calls can be devastating.

"A hang-up may not bother somebody," said Sgt. Greg Tita, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. "Somebody cussing out a person may not bother somebody. But to others, like elderly people, it may put them totally beside themselves. They may not know who to turn to or what to do.

"It's innocent in itself, but it may have traumatic effects on some people. . . . It may be a detriment to their health."

Phone problems can be significant issues in the lives of teenagers, said Tita, who added that he knows first-hand. He raised three daughters and a son, and his phone seemed to ring off the hook at times during his children's teenage years.

He even took a girl to the Pinellas County Citizen Dispute Settlement Program for continually calling his house and saying nothing when the phone was answered. The program offers help to parties who have a conflict. In this case, the girl was given community service duties.

Police do not have time to investigate every harassment claim. Tita and officials for Verizon Communications say that if you feel that you are being harassed, you should immediately tell the caller you don't want to talk with them and that you will report them to police.

Changing your phone number and getting an unlisted number could help, and there's a number of features available for purchase that can combat harassing phone calls including Caller ID, Call Block, Call Tracing and Call Return.

They come at a price, but none more than $7.95 a month, said Jim Marzano, a Verizon spokesman.

Marzano said if you continually receive calls from someone you do not know, you should hang up, give no information and teach children to do the same. Using an automated voice on an answering machine could also help prevent repeat calls because harassing callers might get satisfaction from the voice, intriguing them to continue calling.

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