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Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Cellphone users graduate to`lies and alibis clubs'

Apart from helping people stay in easy contact, cellphones are starting to take on a different function -- helping users hide their whereabouts, create alibis and generally excuse their bad behavior

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SAN FRANCISCO

Text messaging, for example, a popular cell phone function that lets people send short e-mail messages to and from phones, has been adopted as the most efficient means of contacting potential alibi abettors. According to the Yankee Group, a market research firm, some 1.7 billion text messages were sent in the US during the third quarter of 2003, up from 1.2 billion during the first quarter. Text messaging can be a major source of revenue for mobile phone companies, who charge up to US$0.10 to send or receive a message, said Linda Barrabee, an analyst with the Yankee Group.

Barrabee said the technology is particularly popular among teenagers and 20-somethings, like Michelle Logan, a 26-year-old San Diego resident who works for an airline.

Logan was traveling in Europe last year when she learned about a network of several thousand mobile phone users who, through text messaging, help one another establish alibis and make excuses.

In April, Logan founded the alibi club that Hall used on the sms.ac site, which charges users for receiving e-mails.

Through the site, phone users can sign on to mobile chat rooms to send messages to each other over the Internet or by phone. There are hundreds of such clubs focusing on subjects large and small, ranging from animal rights to the question of whether pirates or ninjas are tougher.

In Logan's case, she promptly used the alibi club she had started to get out of a blind date. She sent out a text message asking for help, and in came a response from a stranger in San Jose, California, who agreed to call the blind date, pretend to be Logan's boss, and explain that she had to go to Europe for a training seminar.

These days, Logan spends much of her time overseeing the e-mail traffic and watching her club grow. It now has 3,400 members, with hundreds of new members signing up each week. One member recently used the club to fool his wife so he could stay at a sports bar to watch the NBA finals. Another member -- the wife of a soldier stationed in Iraq -- sent out a message asking for help to conjure up an excuse after becoming pregnant by another man. But in that case, many responders urged the woman to tell her husband the truth, according to club members.

The European alibi club that inspired Logan, called "mobile lies and alibis," was started in July 2003. It quickly grew to 4,000 members, but was shut down late last year by its founder.

"I got a new girl, and she wasn't too keen on it," said Kyle Hanson, 21, who lives in Hamburg, Germany. "She thought it was immoral. Imagine that!"

Logan said she is not terribly concerned about lying. Still, she said one reason she prefers counting on strangers to help her is that she doesn't want her friends to know what she's doing.

"You wouldn't really want your friends to know you're sparing people's feelings with these white lies," she said, laughing.

Another problem, which even alibi club members admit, is that other members may not be entirely trustworthy. Hall, the student in Denver, said that when he gave away his girlfriend's phone number to a stranger, he worried that the stranger might do more than make an excuse.

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