Hall, a 20-year-old college student in Denver, decided in March to spend a weekend in nearby Boulder with another woman. He turned to his cellphone for help, sending out a text message to hundreds of other cellphone users in an alibi and excuse club, a network of 3,400 strangers who help each other skip work, get out of dates or give a loved one the slip.
Assistance came instantly. One of the club members, on receiving Halls message, agreed to call the girlfriend. He pretended to be the soccer coach from the University of Colorado at Boulder and said that Hall was needed in town for a tryout.
It worked out pretty good, said Hall, who signed up for the network on www.sms.ac, a Web site that offers access to hundreds of mobile chat rooms.
Cellphones are usually used to help people keep track of each other and stay in easy contact. But they are also starting to take on quite a different function helping users hide their whereabouts, create alibis and generally excuse their bad behaviour.
There is nothing new about making excuses or telling fibs. But the lure of alibi networks, their members say, lies partly with the anonymity of the Internet, which lets people find collaborators who disappear as quickly as they appeared. Engaging a freelance deceiver is also less risky than dragging a friend into a ruse. Cellphone-based alibi clubs, which have sprung up in the United States, Europe and Asia, allow people to send out mass text messages to thousands of potential collaborators asking for help. When a willing helper responds, the sender and the helper craft a lie, and the helper then calls the victim with the excuse not unlike having a friend forge a doctors note for a teacher in the pre-digital age.
Another new tactic is the use of audio recordings that can be played in the background during a phone conversation to falsify the callers whereabouts. Phones can be equipped to play, at the press of a button, the sounds of honking horns, ambulance sirens or a dentists drill. An employee who is actually sitting at the beach might be able to call his boss, play the blaring tones of a traffic jam, and explain why it has been impossible to get to work on time.
It lets you control your environment, said Harry Kargman, chief executive of Kargo, a New York company that plans to begin selling in July a variety of cellphone sounds for $2.99, including the rasp of a hacking cough to simulate lung infection.
Its not necessarily malicious or nefarious, Kargman said.
Whatever the moral implications of these functions, they show that the cellphone, with its increasing computing power, is taking on complicated functions once associated with computers. And the advanced technology that makes it possible to keep closer tabs on people, said James E. Katz, a professor for communications at Rutgers University, also gives them a potent tool for deception.
Katz said there was practically an arms race between the technology used to locate people and track behaviour global positioning systems, for instance, and caller ID on phones and technologies designed to deflect surveillance, like audio for fake background noises. At the same time, constant surveillance may have increased the desire to get off the radar, even if that means using underhanded tricks.
Text messaging, for example, a popular cellphone 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 United States 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 10 cents 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 Logans 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, Calif., who agreed to call the blind date, pretend to be Logans 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 wasnt 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 doesnt want her friends to know what shes doing.
You wouldnt really want your friends to know youre sparing peoples 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 girlfriends phone number to a stranger, he worried that the stranger might do more than make an excuse.
I didnt want him hitting on her or telling her what I was up to, Hall said. But now he is a believer in the power of the cellphone assisted alibi. It worked out good, actually.
MATT RICHTEL / NY TIMES