Caller ID con not illegal — yet

Todd Smith, owner of Maine Fire Equipment Co., spent an entire day recently hosing off angry callers convinced that his small business was responsible for threatening them during the course of pushy credit-card solicitations.

Maine Fire Equipment doesn’t issue credit cards, isn’t in the credit industry, and obviously doesn’t need this kind of grief, which essentially prevented it from conducting business. The company — and hundreds if not thousands of call recipients — were victimized by someone spoofing Maine Fire’s telephone number, a deception which in and of itself is not illegal — at least not yet.

Not only is the Caller ID con going unchecked and getting worse, one security expert tells me, there soon will be “another explosion of this despicable practice” thanks to, of all things, the release of a Hollywood movie.

Smith’s tale of woe first: “I’d say as of right now, we have gotten 200 phone calls from people across the nation saying I called them, threatening to turn them in to the FBI over their credit,” he told the Morning Sentinel of Waterville, Maine. “A lot of them were from the Midwest. Lots of people from Texas and Alabama, too.”

My efforts to reach Smith to see how he was faring on Day 2 of his misery proved difficult for the simple reason that Maine Fire Equipment had stopped answering its phone, opting instead to direct callers to an answering machine. After a round of phone tag, Smith and I finally connected.

“Trying to get stuff done yesterday was impossible; we pretty much just shut down,” he said, adding that the calls from irate scam targets were coming every two minutes for at least nine hours before he decided the answering machine was their only option. He’s “certainly concerned” that the episode has cost him business and customers. Verizon offered to change his phone number, “but we’re in a bunch of phone books that we paid a great deal of money to be in.”

Security expert Rob Douglas, who runs the Web site, said the victimization of Maine Fire Equipment is by no means uncommon.

“There is no doubt that Caller ID spoofing is on the rise,” said Douglas. “I testified against the practice in both the House and Senate in 2006, and warned Congress that the practice is growing by leaps and bounds. The Congress in its infinite wisdom declined to pass a law against spoofing, and the predictable result is that more and more companies are offering the service.”

The House has passed antispoofing legislation, and a Senate bill was making progress at the end of last year. In the meantime, opportunists continue to make hay off the practice.

“Take a look at and other similar firms that are openly advertising the ability to deceive recipients of calls into believing they are actually being called by someone else — due to what appears on the Caller ID,” Douglas said. “The technique can also be used to defeat authentication systems for banking services and voice mail.”

And we may not have seen the worst of it, thanks to Hollywood.

“There may be another explosion of this despicable practice as the movie Untraceable, about to be released, is reportedly going to demonstrate the practice of spoofing,” he says.

In the meantime, I’ve changed my mind and now see the need for legislation that outlaws Caller ID spoofing. The conversation came about the time that Todd Smith at Maine Fire Equipment was telling me he hoped he’d be able to turn his phone back on some day soon.

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