Samaritans' crisis hotline jammed by prank callers
By SHIRLEY KWOK
A CRISIS hotline is being plagued by prank callers, denying desperate people urgent counselling.
The Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, which offers the only 24-hour Cantonese-speaking hotline service in the territory, last year received more than 5,000 calls.
Most of the genuine callers, aged between 15 and 34, asked about love affairs, marriage, family life, making friends, careers and sex.
About 1,500, or 30 per cent, of the callers did not seek advice or counselling, but called as a prank.
Last year, 105 people telephoned and either said nothing, or they laughed, spoke nonsense or uttered obscenities before cutting the line.
Another 1,413 callers did not speak, but tied up the line for minutes.
'This is really annoying. We cannot hang up the receiver before they cut the line. We have to wait to the last minute to see whether the person on the line needs our help,' said Suen Ka-yin, who is in charge of the hotline centre.
'But this jams the line and prevents the needy people from calling in.
'This is a helpline, not a line for fun seeking.' Miss Suen said the organisation had received prank calls in past years as well, but the number last year increased an alarming 50 per cent over the previous year.
In 1992, the organisation received 1,016 prank calls, compared with 707 in 1991. Although this year's figures were not available, Miss Suen was worried the situation would be worse.
A spokesman for Hong Kong Telecom said the company received individual client complaints about prank calls and offered a two-week free operator service to screen calls.
But she doubted whether their methods would be convenient for a hotline.
Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong spokesman Lau Che-wai said the group could do nothing to stop the prank calls.
'For those callers who say nothing to us, we do not know how old they are, whether they are children or adults,' said Mr Lau, adding that many other voluntary organisations offering hotline services faced similar problems.
A clinical psychologist, Dr Samuel Ho Mun-yin, said people making prank calls might want to embarrass the person at the other end of the line.
Dr Ho said: 'Some people calling a hotline service and not speaking a word may be too frightened or embarrassed to speak up. This is particularly common when they have problems in controversial areas, like sex.