Opinion

Charles: A case for landlines — with a caveat

I still have the same phone number I did when I first moved to Boston in 1985. Since I stayed in the same neighborhood — just moved around a couple of times — that number has stayed with me.

And even though more and more people are getting rid of their landlines because of the ubiquitous cell phones, I’m keeping mine.

When the Internet started appearing in everyone’s homes, America went online with the phone line. Believe it or not, the telecommunications industry started worrying that there wouldn’t be enough landlines, since people got a second number so they could stay plugged into the Internet.

I remember when my husband would stay online for hours, many times for work (he was an IT guy), or just to stay informed. I would call, get the busy signal, and get frustrated. We talked about getting a second number, but then cell phones started getting more popular (I may still have my old analog phone somewhere, and I definitely still have my old flip phone), so as long as we had both, we could stay in touch.

Even now, with all three people in my house having separate cell phones, we call the house phone when no one is answering their portable device. With extensions all over the house, we’re never far away from a land phone.

But there are several reasons I keep a landline.

One is that everyone who has that number can find me and leave a message on the old-fashioned answering machine that still has my daughter’s cute little 8-year-old voice. Most of the messages are spam robocalls (more on that later) or CVS reminding me about this or that prescription. But my family can still reach me and it’s easier for my nonagenarian mother to remember this one number for my family than three. And if you had my number 30 years ago, but have lost touch, you still have my number.

Another reason is 9/11.

It’s been awhile, but many people may not remember that when the planes went into the towers, the Pentagon and a field, the cell towers were shut down. If you only had a cell phone, you weren’t getting in touch with anyone.

My daughter was a toddler and my husband was in D.C. on business, four miles from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. I had talked to him briefly after the Twin Towers were brought down, but I couldn’t call his cell after I heard about the Pentagon plane. However, I could call his office through my landline, and have them patch me through. When the cell towers don’t work, those phone cables will.

And the third reason I will keep a landline is another 9/11. The 911 system is just starting to be able to get closer to where you are should you call from your cell. But they could just be bouncing off the nearest tower, which is why it is routed to the state police.

A few years ago when I took a CPR course, the instructors told us then that using a cell phone was inefficient for immediate response. Call from your home and your address shows up on their screen, even as they ask your whereabouts. If you hang up, they will call back. No answer and they may send someone to your house to make sure you’re OK. But if it’s a cell number, they have no idea exactly where you are. (A cousin who works for Homeland Security confirmed this to be true.)

Last year I was reminded of this again, when a man in my neighborhood fell in the street. Despite everyone on their phones calling 911, no ambulance or police car appeared for way too long. So I called the local police station, who told me to call 911. When I explained that no one had appeared for going on 10 minutes, they made the call to send police and ambulance. If you call 911 from your cell and get routed to the state police, you tell them your location, they send you to your local area, and you tell them where you are and what you need. That has been my experience.

Now for the caveat.

Most of the calls I get at home are robo and spam calls. My caller ID will even say SPAM? before it says the number. So if it’s a number I don’t recognize or it’s marked as spam, I ignore it. And the robo monsters are getting better at spamming your cell number anyway, no matter how many times you plug your number(s) into the National Do Not Call list.

Now here’s a funny thing. The robocallers aren’t just using familiar or local exchanges anymore to try and get you. They’re using your old numbers and ID.

A couple of weeks ago a local number came up on my phone. I recognized the name as an acquaintance of mine whom I hadn’t talked to in years, so I picked up the receiver only to be caught in the midst of a robocall. I messaged my friend online and told her that her name and number had come up as a robocall. She replied that had been her landline number about five or six years ago! So when you give up your landline and number, your identity is now being taken to try and scam others. It was probably just a coincidence that this number happened to belong to someone I actually knew.

I will keep my landline. I have call intercept so blocked numbers won’t get through. I have caller ID, so I’ll know if it’s someone I want to talk to. I’ll keep my landline because I may need it should a cyber attack shut down cell tower communication. Or if my family needs to reach me and my cell phone is downstairs charging and on silent. Or if I ever need to call 911 and have them know immediately where to send help.

But for the rest of you scammers? Don’t waste your time. I’m not even going to answer.

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