Japan in a lather over steamy phone calls

It’s 7a.m. in Tokyo. As millions of people reluctantly stir from a night’s sleep to face the coming day, thousands of cellular telephones start to ring … once.

Such calls, known as “one-giri” in Japanese, used to be the exclusive tool of tight-fisted people who didn’t want to pay for a telephone call and relied on the tendency of most people to make a call back to people that had missed them. At the end of last year, marketers began to pick-up on the idea and the frequency of the calls has increased to the point where they have become the latest scourge of Japan.

The scheme works like this. A computer at the one-giri operator makes calls to random cell phone numbers and hangs up after one ring. That ensures the telephone number of the calling company is registered in the cell phone’s memory as a missed call but it costs the company nothing. What usually follows is that the cell phone user, on seeing the number, makes a call back. The one-giri companies are using conventional Tokyo or Osaka telephone numbers which makes them difficult to distinguish from genuine missed calls.

Upon calling back, a tape plays. One or several girls will recite a line something like this: “Thanks for calling. Welcome to our service where you can meet some great girls. If this if the first time you have called, press the hash button twice.”

From there, things start to get interesting. The services usually request that you give them your name, telephone number, and company name or address, said Yuki Isono, a spokeswoman for NTT DoCoMo Inc. Her company, which has more than 41 million cellular subscribers in Japan, received 2,700 calls in June alone complaining about and questioning the calls. The one-giri companies sometimes ask you to wire money to their bank accounts to get credit for the service but some are a little more aggressive and repeatedly call, threatening people with trouble unless they wire money, sometime hundreds of dollars, for using the services.

In fact, users don’t owe the company anything and simply pay for the normal rate for calls from their cell phone to the number, but many people send the money anyway to avoid the threatened visit to their house or a call to their company to complain about money owed to sex telephone services.

Users have been annoyed by such calls for some time but the carriers have been slow to respond, explaining that the mere act of dialling someone and hanging up is breaking no rules and, therefore, there is little they can do. That changed quickly on July 15 when NTT West Corp., the local loop provider in west Japan, was sent scrambling to try to avoid a collapse of the telephone network in Osaka, Japan’s second largest city.

On that day, the volume of calls started rising at around 10 a.m. in the morning and within 15 minutes the carrier had been forced to place a 50 percent curb on the number of calls that could be made, to keep the network operating. The disruption, which lasted for several hours and affected more than 5 million telephone lines, was traced to a one-giri operator that began making more than 4,000 calls every three minutes over roughly 200 telephone lines.

Apparently unashamed by its actions, the same company again brought chaos to Osaka two weeks later when, on July 29, it began mass-dialling and NTT West again had to put a 50 percent cap on calls being made within the city. This time, however, the carrier had a better idea about what was going on and within an hour had verified the offending company and disconnected its telephone lines. But the disconnection can only be temporary under NTT’s own regulations.

Eager to avoid a further meltdown, NTT West and NTT East Corp., its equivalent in eastern Japan, including Tokyo, requested that the government implement a change to the telecommunication rules allowing them to permanently disconnect offenders. The application was approved the same day it was submitted and now the carriers are better armed, but only to cut off one-giri schemes that cause disruptions. Should the companies make a lower volume of calls which does not affect the performance of the network, NTT is unable to disconnect them.

For Japan’s cell-phone users, the rise in one-giri calls came just as they were getting relief from another annoyance: unwanted e-mail. A new law prohibiting mass e-mailing to random cell phone users went into effect on July 1.