National Consumers League

Caller ID spoofing threatening cell phone privacy


By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director Recently the New York Times reported on the explosion in spoofing caller ID’s by debt collectors or marketers. It turns out that anyone basically can get access to a consumer’s cell phone and spoof the caller ID number—pretend to be a friend, a relative, or a nonprofit like the Humane Society to get you to answer the call. Ironically, after reading the Times story, I searched the paper’s Web site and found two sites that promise “legal spoofing” so that you can pretend to be someone else when make calls. Spoof Card sells credits—$4.95 is the cheapest—and anyone can buy the credits and use them to spoof any other number but their own. The other site sounds more sinister, and its name is fitting. “Phone Gangster” makes the following claims and says its spoofing is legal in the USA and Canada:

Upon calling a person, you will get to choose what number you want to appear as. Best of all, there is no way the party can find out what phone number the call originated from because their phone records will display the altered number. Our service is not only fun and useful, but it is legal as well. We have tested and confirmed our caller id spoofing service works in the USA and Canada. Purchase an instant phone card from us today!

In September, the Federal Trade Commission received 140,000 complaints about pre-recorded robocalls, more than double the 61,000 complaints in the same month a year ago, the agency said. Under the Truth in Caller ID Act, passed last year and enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, it is illegal to transmit inaccurate or misleading caller ID information “with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” In addition to potentially violating the law, what’s wrong with being able to call someone using a phony caller ID? Because this would be a heyday for telemarketers, debt collectors, and scammers who already prey on consumers using landlines. Cell phones are the last bastion of privacy, where friends, family, and business associates—in other words, only those you choose to share your number with—get access to your cell phone. If that falls victim to spoofers, consumers will lose the trust they have in their cell phones and their cell phone providers. Enforcement of the FCC and FTC protections are important, but state attorneys general offices should also stay involved, and no legislation should preempt their ability to protect consumers from the mischief of the explosion of fake caller IDs.