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The Watchdog: Caller ID spoofing too easy

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

Dear Watchdog: Lately, I've been getting calls that appear to originate from the local area listings but turn out to be a marketing company of some sort. All have been from 214 or 817 area codes. Can anything be done? — Ed C.

Dear Watchdog: After getting those calls, I called one of those numbers back. A woman answered and swore she didn't call me. Are phone numbers getting hijacked by non-legit telemarketing firms? Have you heard this from anyone else? — Mary C.

What's going on, Watchdog?

Three of the great failures of our era are the Do Not Call list, caller ID and the overly greasy McRib sandwich. Let's talk about caller ID. Back when phone companies started charging extra for caller ID, the miracle was supposed to protect us (and it did hurt the teenager prank call industry).

Caller ID has now become a scammer's favorite tech tool. They use an inexpensive caller ID spoofing software to change the name and number that appear on caller ID.

How do they do that?

You can do it. Do an Internet search for "caller ID spoofing," and you find many companies that offer the service. Fake caller ID apps for phones are easily available, too. A typical offer sells credits for phone calls. You instruct what to put in the caller ID. (An example: White House, 202-456-1111)

How do crooks use it?

The scammers who call and violate the ineffective Do Not Call list choose phone numbers that look like they come from your neighborhood.

Why?

They figure you're more likely to pick up it if appears to be a local number.

Does it work?

It does. I pick up sometimes. But ever weirder, I've heard stories from people who see their own number flash in caller ID. It appears as if they're calling themselves. Curious, of course, they pick up.

Isn't this illegal?

The Truth in Caller ID Act makes it illegal to use spoofing software for fraudulent purposes. But it's hard to catch wrongdoers because the technology is cheap. There are many violators.

What possible reason could there be to allow this software to get sold openly to everyone?

When I've interviewed owners of these companies, they explain that doctors like to return calls but want their official office numbers to show up on caller ID. Same goes for law enforcement or any workers who want to make it appear as if they are calling from the office.

One company owner said, "If you want to report a crime and stay anonymous, it's basically like a witness protection type deal."

Do spoofing companies keep records?

They do, and they offer them up to law enforcement under subpoena. But short of that, consider all the damage one can do by pretending to be someone else. One company even bragged in its marketing materials that its service "allows you to be whoever you want to be."

Watchdog, what's the worst abuse you've seen in our area?

After the Rowlett tornado, victims received calls from a roofing marketing company based in Las Vegas with a call center in Mexico. Caller ID numbers didn't show a Mexican area code. Rather, the scammers used phone numbers that resembled Rowlett City Hall, Rowlett Fire Rescue and an area medical center.

Who regulates the spoofing industry?

The feds, specifically the Federal Communications Commission. They've had two high-profile busts this year. One was a North Carolina man selling insurance who made 21 million illegally spoofed calls. In another case, a Florida man was caught making 100 million spoofed calls selling time shares.

Even better, the FCC voted Thursday to allow phone companies to make it impossible to spoof calls using some fake numbers. Phone numbers can be placed on a "Do Not Originate" list, and those numbers will be blocked from appearing on caller ID. It won't solve the problem but it will help. For instance, calls won't come in showing the IRS' phone number anymore.

You said complaining is useless, Watchdog, but tell me where to complain anyway?

Search for phone complaint forms on the FCC website or call the FCC at 888-225-5322. You can also complain to the Federal Trade Commission.

How do you stop caller ID spoofing?

You can't. Best advice: Don't answer. Or if you do, hang up. Don't push buttons. Don't engage. The Watchdog always says don't trust anyone selling door to door. Now I add this: Don't trust strangers who call on the phone, no matter what caller ID says.

Staff Writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

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Email: watchdog@dallasnews.com

Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265