‘Don’t Pick Up The Phone’ Review: A Hoax Call Scam That Went A Bit Too Far

Scams, hoodwinking, gambits, fraud, and swindling mean just one thing. Fooling people into believing something and eventually cheating them by getting away from the scene of the crime. The world over is littered with fraudsters who would find loopholes in the law books and target a section of people for their benefit. They keep repeating their MO until they are finally caught by the law establishment. “Don’t Pick Up the Phone” is one such documentary on a scam call that went on in the United States of America for ten years without the culprit getting caught. The supposed man-made calls to several eatery chains were made with the motive to harass them. How far did the criminal go to make sure he was not caught? That is what “Don’t Pick Up the Phone” delves into. A true crime documentary that does not shy away from the harsh reality of what happens behind the closed doors of every establishment out there.


Spoilers Ahead

“Don’t Pick Up the Phone” begins with officer Buddy Stump being made aware that a girl from his neighborhood has been subjected to sexual assault over a phone call. Confused about what he heard, he dives deep into the matter to help the girl find justice and to understand who is responsible for such a heinous crime on reaching and collecting enough evidence, including the videotape of the assault recorded on the CCTV camera placed inside the manager’s room. Louise Ogborn, the victim of the crime that unfolded, is an employee at McDonald’s in her hometown. She is brought into her manager’s room to talk to her about a crime she has allegedly committed. The manager is on the phone with a local police officer, who claims to have received a complaint against Louise. She has allegedly stolen some money from a customer that visited the said McDonald’s branch, and the police officer on the call requests the manager, Donna Summers, strip search Louise to check if she has hidden the cash. Donna Summers is later joined by her fiancé, who takes up the phone and starts acting up according to the instructions given by the caller on the phone. He ends up sexually molesting her by touching her private parts, which he states was done as per the instructions. The incident causes mayhem in the town of Mount Washington in Kentucky. Officer Stump takes it upon himself to solve this case. As he digs deeper, he comes across plenty of cases from around the country. Further investigation proves that such hoax calls to fast food eateries forcing their employees to strip for searching have been going on since 1994. Detective Stump has a long road ahead of him; finding the culprit behind the hoax calls will be an uphill task. Along with Detective Stump, Detective Victor Flaherty of Massachusetts also came across plenty of cases of such hoax calls that led to the strip searches of the fast-food eateries’ employees. Detective Flaherty also takes it upon himself to track the culprit for the many lives that were at stake—women who were assaulted for no crime they had committed. The caller’s MO was to target small towns that fear law establishments, and the employees targeted would be forced to follow the instructions in the hope they wouldn’t lose their only jobs that keep them sustained. There were testimonies of several women who came forward and spoke about the horrible turmoil they went through in those few hours. The establishments, the managers, and the rest of the employees did not step away from the call and realize it was a hoax call from someone out there just to humiliate women. Apart from women, there were cases of male employees being sexually assaulted based on another hoax of the same nature. Plenty of employees of the fast-food chains were subjected to the humiliation of the next order under the pretext of the strip search, which led to many filing cases against the said managers and the fast-food chain themselves. The hoax call was never taken seriously until Detectives Stump, and Flaherty decided to follow up on who had been making these calls and what their motives were for such a crime. Over the course of a decade, up until 2004, the calls kept coming in without anyone suspecting who the criminal was. The fast-food chains, especially McDonald’s, were the most targeted establishments, which did not do anything to warn or train their employees on the calls that were making news all over the country. 


Detectives Stump and Flaherty start digging deep into where the calls are being made from. They both come to meet eventually because both are hell-bent on finding out who is the criminal behind such an elaborate plan of targeting only small-town folks. After tracking the phone records of the establishments, their investigation proves that the call was made using prepaid call cards purchased from a Walmart store in Panama City, in the state of Florida. On receiving CCTV footage from Walmart, both conclude that the man is a cop based on the trousers he was wearing. Flaherty and Stump finally find a lead in a 10-year-old case and are curious to find out who the man is and what his motives are behind such an act of pure evil. Their lead takes them to Florida, where they cross-check with Panama City PD about the identity of the cop. The local police do not recognize the man from the CCTV footage, but they recognize from his trousers that he works in the correction facility, and he is not exactly a cop. After cross-checking with the city’s three correction facilities, one of them recognizes the man as David Stewart, who is at work as they speak. On interrogating David, Stump and Flaherty come across the body language of the man who is guilty of committing a crime. David is finally made the prime suspect in this case. David will soon be represented by a lawyer who claims that apart from the CCTV footage gathered by Stump and Flaherty, there is no concrete evidence to prove that David was the one who made the calls to several establishments with the motive to harass women. The investigation into David’s life proved that he was obsessed with becoming a cop. “Don’t Pick Up the Phone” also threw light on the investigation of David Stewart and the lengths David and his lawyer went to prove him innocent. David made sure the evidence gathered was proven inconsequential in court so that he was acquitted. Detective Stump and Flaherty are confident of the fact that it is David who made calls from Panama City to the outlets with the motive to harass using his power. He wanted to be a cop, and making demands helped him live through his fantasy of being a cop.

“Don’t Pick Up the Phone” also focused on Louise’s civil suit against McDonald’s, which refused to warn their employees about the hoax despite numerous complaints against it. McDonald’s used to use the usual tactic of shaming and blaming the victim, but the evidence against the establishment was mounting. The documentary does not shy away from blaming the establishment for not taking the right steps to protect its employees. McDonald’s ended up losing the battle to Louise. They paid her 6 million dollars as compensation for the harassment she faced on their premises. But the documentary also focused on how weak the judiciary is because it did not help another employee find justice. She was asked to be her protector and did not expect an establishment to save her from a crisis such as this. The same judiciary let go of David Stewart for not having any hard-core evidence against him.


“Don’t Pick Up the Phone” is a hard reality check on the society that America is and the miles men and women have to obtain gratification, commit crimes and hope that they will get away with it. The judiciary, the police, and the capitalistic establishments are flawed and weak and cannot do anything to protect their people from falling for scams such as these hoax calls. No stipulated sexual harassment laws were made to protect any employee from protecting them from predators of any form. Thankfully, those employees found a way to fight the trauma they went through. “Don’t Pick Up the Phone” is a must-watch because it gives audiences a peek into the crimes that no one thought would exist or be carried out by someone. A compelling watch indeed.

“Don’t Pick Up the Phone” is a Netflix Original documentary streaming with subtitles.

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Smriti Kannan
Smriti Kannan
Smriti Kannan is a cinema enthusiast, and a part time film blogger. An ex public relations executive, films has been a major part of her life since the day she watched The Godfather – Part 1. If you ask her, cinema is reality. Cinema is an escape route. Cinema is time traveling. Cinema is entertainment. Smriti enjoys reading about cinema, she loves to know about cinema and finding out trivia of films and television shows, and from time to time indulges in fan theories.

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