Phone calls from the dead: some possible technical explanations

I recently encountered a case that included strange phone calls in the night from a disused number. It made me wonder what possible technical causes we would need to eliminate before resorting to a paranormal explanation.

Phone Calls from the Dead (1979), the ground-breaking study by D. Scott Rogo and Raymond Bayless, appeared too long ago to take into account features of modern telecommunications. Callum E. Cooper, in Telephone Calls from the Dead (2012), explores some more recent cases, but, where he considers natural explanations, seems more focused on psychological rather than technical causes.

Contemporary mobile phones now have more in common with computers than the analogue land-line telephones of yore. Software on the phone increasingly plays a greater role in how calls are processed and presented. It seems to me that, like ‘orbs’ in digital photography, anomalous mobile calls may often arise through misinterpretation of artefacts produced by the technology itself.

I searched on-line for resources offering investigators a list of possible technical explanations for anomalous calls, but found to my surprise there was nothing like this available. So I have made a start at compiling one of my own.

The following, tentative list arose from conversations on-line with Steve Parsons, Andrew Oakley and C.J. Romer, to whom I am very thankful. The help-desk at Tesco Mobile also offered some useful information in response to a query I sent. Personally, I avoid mobile communications devices, and am very far from being an expert. I would be grateful to hear from anyone willing to point out any technical inaccuracies in what follows, or making suggestions for further items that could be included.

1. Reallocation of numbers

Telephone numbers are frequently reallocated. When a person dies, someone else will probably be assigned the number after an amount of time that varies between companies, but is shorter for mobiles than for landlines. The turnover will vary according to the amount of dialling codes that the company has been allocated. (Tesco Mobile and Giffgaff have a relatively small number of these.)

This was the explanation in the widely-publicised case of Sheri Emerson, who received text messages from someone who had acquired her deceased grandmother’s phone number.

2. Cloned SIM card

The call history and contact information associated with a number is routinely deleted by the phone company when a number is reallocated. However, some contact information can be stored on the SIM card of some phone models. Some kinds of SIM cards are vulnerable to illegal cloning by people intent on making free calls, or eavesdropping on the owner of the original phone. If the SIM card of a phone were cloned, the user of the clone could present as the original owner and could send messages to the original owner’s contacts.

This could be an explanation for the case I encountered recently. A person was receiving silent calls in the night from a friend, but on a number he knew his friend no longer used. The recipient had attributed a paranormal significance to these calls.

3. Caller identification apps

Certain phone apps, such as Truecaller, collect contact information from their subscribers and upload it to a database. The purpose is to inform the user who is calling them, even when the caller is not one of the user’s contacts. However, accuracy depends upon the database being up-to-date. A newly reallocated number could present as a former owner of that number to the user of the app.

It is unlikely that this scenario would generate many cases, because it would require the coincidence of a call from a newly reallocated number, and the recipient’s acquaintance with its former owner. However, coincidences do occur, so it remains a possibility.

4. Caller identification matching

The standard method for matching contact names to the identity of a caller looks only at the last six digits of the number making an incoming call. This is because the incoming dialling code may be different depending from where the call originates. For example, if you were abroad and called someone in the UK, the prefix might be 447, 00447, 19447, etc. Only the last 5-7 digits can be trusted, so if someone from Timbuktu had the same last 6 digits as a person in your contacts list, your phone would register that call as coming from your contact. Personalised numbers increase the chance of a false positive. If you pick a number ending 007 (for example), your chance of a wrong number identified as someone you know is higher, because other people on different prefixes will also consider that suffix desirable. With a personalised number the chances may come down to one in a thousand, rather than one in a million.

Could an international wrong number, erroneously identified as a contact, be an explanation for a case reported by Charles Waterstreet, who received text messages apparently from a dead friend?

5. Pocket dialling

So-called ‘pocket-dialling’ – when physical pressure applied to a phone inside a pocket or bag causes it to activate – can also produce strange calls. It might result in muffled sounds on the recipient’s voicemail, which may be subject to misinterpretation. It can also leave entries in call logs, creating the impression that a person intended to call when, in fact, they did not.

Can pocket-dialling be ruled out as a cause in the tragic case of Charles Peck, whose phone made calls to various members of his family for over an hour after he died in a train crash?

6. Caller identification spoofing

False identification of calls can also be inflicted intentionally, either by someone with advanced knowledge of phone systems, or through the use of apps specifically designed to allow a user to make a call that presents as if it were from someone else (‘spoofing’). This activity is illegal in the UK, and in the US is illegal where the intention is to defraud or exploit. Some of the apps that facilitate it can be expensive and risky to use, but this would probably not deter a determined fraudster.

In ‘post-mortem’ calls that include sustained conversation between the recipient and the deceased, the hoax hypothesis is perhaps the first that needs to be ruled out. It may seem hard to believe that someone could do such a thing. ‘That would be very cruel’, comments John L. Randall in Callum E. Cooper’s Telephone Calls from the Dead. ‘Unfortunately,’ Randall adds, ‘some people are naturally cruel’ (p. 167).