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Archive for the ‘Tutorials’ Category

Unmasking Anonymous Stalker Phone Calls

December 29th, 2013 by Nikki Smith

unmask-anonymous-stalker-callsThe following is a public safety blog post.  If you or a loved one receive harassing phone calls from a stalker hiding their callerID (i.e. “Anonymous” or “Private Number” calls) you NEED to read this article. You’ll learn a technique the police and phone company haven’t told you — how to unmask the call and get their caller ID phone number and name anyway.

First, let me briefly share my story about my own anonymous stalker and the difficulty I had obtaining help from the phone company and police. Then I’ll teach you the simple method that finally helped me to identify the stalker and end the calls, as well as safety tips and advice for handling stalkers and calls of this nature.

This past year I have been dealing with an unknown stalker who hides behind a private number when he calls.  He was a heavy breather, and the calls were always of a sexual nature.  I offered no encouragement of any kind (positive or negative), only saying “hello” and immediately hanging up when I determined it was him.  If it was a random caller just dialing numbers, this should have bored him into finding a more interesting victim to harass.  However, since the calls didn’t stop I began to suspect that this man must know me somehow.  Then I began to worry — what if he was someone I dealt with in the course of my work (a client or a colleague), or a neighbor, or…?  What if I knew this person and encountered him in real life, unaware that he was my stalker?  What if I found myself alone with him some day?

My first step was to start a log of the date/time of the calls and any notes on what he said.  I then called the phone company to see if they could help me find out who the last caller was.  The answer was NO: due to current privacy laws, they could not reveal this information (or even see it themselves in some cases).  They advised me to ignore the calls, keep a log, and contact the police if I grew concerned for my safety.

After a few more crank calls, I did contact the local police.  I spoke to a woman who listened, and then informed me that there was nothing the police could do since the caller hadn’t overtly threatened my safety.  She did not take an incident report, or even ask my name.  She advised me to contact the phone company instead.  Was this OK?  “No, not really” I said.  Another call to the phone company confirmed what they said previously, but did gain me the direct phone number to Sprint’s “Corporate Security Department” which the police or a lawyer could call: 800-877-7330.

After a complaint from my husband to the Chief of Police, I did receive a call-back from a different officer who took an incident report to pass along to the investigators.  He was kind, and said he would also speak to the new female officer explaining why it was important to take a report in this situation.  He informed me that under Texas the laws on harassment do not list a set number or frequency of calls; it is a personal judgement call as to whether or not anything will happen with my case.  Ideally, I would need a judge to get a subpoena requiring Sprint to reveal the caller’s identity (which according to the person I spoke with at Sprint, they may or may not be able to do anyway.  The identity might only be available if the stalker was also a Sprint customer.)

OK, so it isn’t looking so good at this point.  Until and unless my stalker takes it to the next level and threatens my safety or I get a court order on my own, it is unlikely that the caller will be identified.  I’m not satisfied with this answer.  And no, I don’t want to change my number and STILL have a stalker among the people I know and interact with.  That’s treating the symptom (the annoying sexual harassment phone calls) and not the problem (the stalker, who could then decide to pay me a personal visit!)

After a lot of research online and a lot of bad information, I stumbled on a post by someone explaining a little loophole in the caller ID laws and a method to thereby reveal the callerID of someone who is using *67 to make their call private and hide their identity.  It turns out that callerID blocking doesn’t work on 800 numbers (who have to pay for incoming calls) and that you can use “Conditional Forwarding” service on your phone in conjunction with a personal 800 number to unmask the caller.  I’ll explain the technique and why it works in a moment.

You can do this yourself with an inexpensive 800 number (read here for full instructions), or you can just sign-up for this handy service and configure your phone:

TrapCall.com

They have an inexpensive “Bug Trap” plan for $4.95/mo that will unmask callerIDs and blacklist unwanted callers.  Or, you can do as I did and opt for the “Bear Trap” plan which also has the ability to record incoming calls** (useful as evidence if you need to get a restraining order.)

**Note that the laws regarding recording calls vary state-by-state.  Some states (like Texas) require the consent of only ONE party on the call to record a conversation (i.e. you, the victim), while other states require BOTH party’s consent.  Even if you are in a state that requires only one party’s consent, if the caller is from a different state requiring the consent of both parties you may break the law if you do not inform them of the recording in advance.  Trap Call does give you the option to choose both whether or not to record calls (available only on certain plans), and whether or not to inform the caller that the call will be recorded. From a practical and personal-safety stand-point (NOT legal advice however), unless you are in a state that requires two-party consent or know your stalker is from such a state, I would opt to record the call without informing them (what stalker would willingly have their call recorded?)

After signing up, the next step is to configure your phone.  Trap Call will walk you through a brief activation process:

The first step (for Sprint users) is to dial “*38″ and press Call or Talk on your phone.  (AT&T users: dial” ##004# and press Send.  Verizon customers dial *73 and press Send.)  The phone will appear to make a call and hang up.  This cancels any Conditional Forwarding service you currently have on your phone.

The next step (for Sprint users) is to dial “*28” followed by the ten-digit phone number Trap Call provides.  They will show you the entire string to dial during the activation process.  (For other phone companies, just walk through the online Wizard with instructions TrapCall shows for your phone.)

Finally, you click on a button to test the configuration.  Trap Call will call your phone — do not answer it (either hang-up or ignore it).  If all works correctly, you will see an “Activation Complete” message.

Trouble-shooting tip:  For my phone, this didn’t work the first time (callers didn’t reach Trap Call, they just got a disconnected tone if I didn’t answer the phone).  After checking with my phone company, I learned that after doing the first two steps above, I also needed to Power Off, then Power On my phone.  Then it worked like a charm.

Finally, you can configure settings in your Trap Call account (you will log-in to the website with your phone number and your PIN.)  Click on “My Phones” at the top, and then step through the side menu items.  Under “Notification Alerts” you can choose whether to get a text and/or email alerts for missed calls, blacklisted calls and voicemails.  Under “Recording Settings” you can choose whether or not to record calls, and whether or not to notify the caller that the call will be recorded.

Quick note: Your voicemail will now go through Trap Call.  Unfortunately, I don’t see a way to record a custom voicemail message at this time, so it is a generic greeting.

Try it yourself by having a friend call your phone from another line (preferably dialing *67 and then your number to hide their callerID).  When the call first comes in, hang-up or ignore it.  The caller will never notice, but the call briefly jumps to Trap Call for a few seconds.  Then you will receive a second call where their callerID is displayed.  (Yay – it works!)  If you wish, you can answer this call, or ignore it and let it go to voicemail (assuming you selected one of the two plans with voicemail at Trap Call).  You will receive a notice (either via text message, email or both per your account settings) letting you know that “Trap Call has unmasked a call from John Doe at 555-555-5555.”

Now, all you need to do is wait for your stalker to call again.  Remember, if you answer the phone when it says “Private Number” or “Anonymous” then Trap Call can’t help.  You have to hang-up or ignore the first call in order for Trap Call to do it’s magic and reveal the callerID when the phone rings again a few seconds later.

Now that you know their identity, file an incident report with the police (just keep contacting them until you reach an officer that will listen and file the report), use your judgement about informing your family and friends of the stalker’s identity, and optionally go to the courts or contact a lawyer for assistance with a restraining order and/or a sexual harassment case.

It is up to your own safety judgement, however, I chose not to reveal to my stalker that I knew his identity on this very first unmasked call.  Rather, I recommend immediately filing a report with the police sharing the stalker’s identity.  Then, you can choose whether to inform your stalker on the next call that you know who they are and have contacted the police, or just use Trap Call’s Blacklist feature to block their calls.  Note that this isn’t always safe, though, as the stalker wants your attention and saying anything to them is giving them the attention they crave.  Ideally, the police should be the ones to confront your stalker once their identity is known.

Safety Tips:

First and foremost, have no contact with your stalker.  Hang up.  Avoid them.

I hope you never encounter your stalker in real life, but just in case, this article is a good read:
Face-to-Face encounter with your Stalker – Safety tips article

Stalker Safety Tips from End Stalking in America – Specific safety tips for at home, in your car, in public places, at work, and if your children are involved.

For the actual harassing phone calls, follow these safety tips (list courtesy of Yale’s public safety department):

  • Hang up. As soon as you hear an obscenity, improper questions or no response to your “Hello?” hang up immediately.  [Be boring.]
  • Don’t talk to strangers.
  • Be careful when the caller says he/she is taking a survey. If you have any concern about the legitimacy of the survey ask the person for his/her firm name and phone number and tell them that you will call them back to verify the survey.
  • Don’t play detective. Don’t extend the call trying to figure out who is calling. This or any other type of reaction is exactly what the caller wants and needs.
  • Keep cool, don’t let the caller know you are upset or angry.
  • Don’t try to be clever. A witty response may be interpreted as a sign of encouragement.
  • Don’t try to be a counselor. The annoyance or obscene caller certainly needs professional help, but he/she will only be encouraged by your concern and will only continue the late night calls.
  • Don’t tell everyone about your calls. Many calls of this type are actually made by friends, family members, or even your closest girlfriend or boyfriend.
    [I’m not sure if I agree with the above tip from Yale entirely — I want my family to know that I have a stalker in case anything happens, so don’t keep it entirely to yourself, tell SOMEONE.  And once their identity IS known via Trap Call, I’d want to share the identity with my friends, colleagues and family for the very same reason.]
  • Place ads with caution. When placing an ad in the newspaper use a confidential box provided by the paper or a post office box. If you must use your phone number, do not list you address. Crank callers are avid readers of the classified ads.
  • Remember, if the caller is a wrong number, they do not need to know your number. Never give your number out to an unknown caller.
  • Report obscene or annoying phone calls to your local or campus police department and begin filling out a phone calls log. The information recorded in this log may provide valuable clues as to the identity of a caller and possibly establish a pattern or identify the location, source, or reason for the calls. Keep this log close to your telephone for convenience.

Helpful?  Please Share:

If you have a friend at the phone company, your local police department, or women’s shelter please also let them know about TrapCall.com and encourage them to share this resource with women as a way of quickly identifying anonymous phone callers so their identity can be shared with police.  (The much longer route requires a court order – I’d rather find out the identity when the calls START rather than waiting for the stalker to cross some dangerous line first.)  Once you know your stalker’s identity, you are one step closer to safety and an end to the harassment.  You can file a report with the police identifying the stalker, file for a restraining order with the courts, share the stalker’s identity with your friends and colleagues, as well as know who to be careful around and avoid entirely if possible.

I hope this information was helpful to you.  If you know of a woman (or man) dealing with anonymous, harassing phone calls from a stalker, please share this article.

Be safe out there!

P.S.  My stalker was identified, contacted by the police, and successfully charged, prosecuted and convicted.  No more harassing phone calls!

Tutorial: Friendly & short Google Plus link for artists

May 9th, 2013 by Nikki Smith

This is a quick tutorial for my artist friends (and anyone, really) who have asked me how I set-up my friendly Google Plus link: http://gplus.to/nikkismith

If you are unfamiliar with Google Plus, it is a social networking and sharing website rich in photos and content, much like FaceBook however without the annoying ads and with (in my opinion) a nicer way to group and sort contacts into “circles.”  It is gaining popularity with artists and photographers as well as the general public.  However, one feature that is sorely lacking is the ability to create a short and friendly link for your account that can be used in printed materials like business cards or told to a friend over the phone.

Let’s face it: ” https://plus.google.com/u/0/116390766766192381448/posts ” is a real mouthful.

A friendly link like this: ” http://gplus.to/nikkismith ” is both more memorable, more professional and a lot easier to communicate than the link Google Plus provides you when you first signed-up.

So if you are ready for a friendly Google+ link, let’s get started!

Step One:  Log-in to your Google Plus account (or create a new account) at: https://plus.google.com/

Step Two:  Look at the URL in the address bar of your browser.  It should look similar to this, though it may be even longer:



Do you see the number that I’ve highlighted above?  This is your Google Plus ID, located right after the “.com/” and before the next “/” slash sign (ignore anything else — the link you see may be very long, but this first number is the important part.)  Highlight this number with your mouse and press the “Ctrl” and “C” keys at the same time to copy it (or if you are on a Mac, press “Option” and “C” at the same time.)

Step Three:  In a new browser window, open this website:  http://gplus.to
This is a company (independent from Google) that provides a URL-shortening service for Google Plus accounts.

Step Four:  You will see a short form with two boxes (see below).  First, click in the “Your Google+ ID” box, located on the right. Press “Ctrl” and “V” to paste your Google Plus ID (or “Option” plus “V” on a Mac).

Step 5:  Next, click in the “Nick Name” box.  Your nick name can be between 3 to 25 characters long and should not contain any special characters (only Latin characters and numbers).  For example, try your first and last names, etc.

Step 6:  Click on the “add” button.  If no one else has claimed that nick name, then it’s yours!  Otherwise you will be prompted to pick a different nick name.

Congratulations!  You now have a short and friendly URL for your Google Plus account!  Copy-and-paste it into your browser address bar and you will be instantly redirected to your Google Plus account.  Add it to your email signature, print it on your business cards, or use it wherever you need to share your Google+ link.

If this was helpful and you would like to see more tutorials like this in the future, just leave a comment below and let me know what you would like to see!  Feel free to introduce yourself and share your friendly Google+ link in the comments below.

Tutorial: Installing PhotoShop Brushes

March 1st, 2013 by Nikki Smith

One of the most powerful tools in PhotoShop for artists is the ability to install and use custom brushes.  Here is a handy tutorial that walks you through the process:

STEP 1:  Locate brushes.
There are many great places to find PhotoShop brushes including a Google Search or one of my favorite resources: Deviant Art.

Tip:  Pay attention to the licensing of the brushes you discover. Many brushes are free to use in any way you wish while others require attribution or are for personal use only.

STEP 2:  Download and save the brushes (“.abr” files) to your computer. 
NOTE: If the brushes were compressed in a “.zip” or “.rar” file, then after you download it you will need to un-zip the file to find the .abr brush files.

STEP 3: Place the “.abr” brush files in the following location:

Windows Users*:

Program Files\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop X\Presets\Brushes

* replace the X with your version of PhotoShop.

Mac Users*:

/Users/{username}/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Adobe Photoshop X/Presets/Brushes

* replace {username} with your username, and change the X above to match your version of Adobe.

STEP 4:  Open PhotoShop and select the Brush Tool (see 4A below).  Next, click on the small down arrow in the Brushes Palette next to the preview of the selected brush (see 4B below).

Next, click the right arrow in the upper right corner and select “Load Brushes” (see below).

In the dialog window that opens, choose the brush you wish to load.

Congratulations, your brushes have been installed!  Use the scrollbar to scroll through the active brushes and click to select your new brush:

Now you are ready to paint!

I hope this tutorial was helpful to you.  If you are stopping by after reading my article in Somerset Digital Studio (Spring 2013) magazine, welcome!

You can see more of my music-inspired digital watercolors (mentioned in the article) here, or check out some of my other tutorials here.

I’d love to see what you create following my tutorials.  Please drop me a link to your art in the comments!