Q: In recent months, I have received calls on my cell phone offering various credit card deals. What struck me as unusual was that the area code was local (618) and the three-digit prefix of the number from which the call originated (as displayed on the Caller ID) was the same as the prefix of my cell phone number. Not only that, but my wife has received similar calls on her phone. The incoming calls all have the 618 area code, and the same three-digit prefix as her phone number but which is different than my prefix. But wait, there’s more: My work-issued phone also receives similar calls, again with the 618 area code, but with the same prefix as the prefix as my work cell phone number. I find it hard to believe that this is a coincidence.
David A., of Belleville
A: Coincidence? Hardly. When the unethical go dialing for dollars, there’s little they won’t stoop to to make you answer your phone. And one of the easiest ways in this high-tech age is to make the number on your Caller ID look like it might be coming from just down the block.
It’s called “neighbor spoofing,” and, for well over a decade, the technique has become easier and easier for those trying to work the hard sell on you. You see, if you’re like me, you let calls from distant area codes — say, Chicago or New York — go to voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message, I figure.
But this reasoning no doubt drives telemarketers up the wall. Here they have all these fancy machines that can dial numbers in sequence one after the other and nobody’s answering. If they want to earn a living, they have to get a breathing body on the other end of the line.
To increase the chances of this happening more often, they have resorted to spoofing — or faking the number that appears on your phone when you check the incoming call. Like you I’ve noticed more and more numbers showing up with 618-394-xxxx, my own prefix. While they could be calling from anywhere in the country, they’re hoping I’ll think it’s a relative, neighbor or some local business and pick up, only to find myself the victim of another marketing spiel I have no interest in.
Guess what? In general, it’s legal. And, yes, now it’s so easy that even you or I could do it with a few clicks on our keyboards.
Used to be you’d need some knowledge of communications equipment (which could be expensive) or at least some computer software such as the so-called orange-boxing that mimics a telephone company signal. But since 2004, dozens of companies have sprouted up on the internet that allow anyone the chance to call others without fear of revealing their identity.
One of the biggest and oldest is SpoofCard. com. For just $10 a month, you can buy 45 minutes of call time during which you can use the service to call just about anyone you wish and display any number you want — including 867-5309 (from the Tommy Tutone hit) or 726-5000 (that’s Pennsylvania 6-5000 for those who remember those wonderful exchange names). Telemarketers, of course, would choose a prefix to match the area they were calling.
As I said, in general it’s legal. The only major law came in 2009 with the Truth in Caller ID Act, which makes it illegal “to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value ...” But as long as the telemarketer is touting a legal product — a credit card or a Medicare supplement, for example — it’s legit despite the exasperation of the duped recipient.
Now, there are times you might want to spoof. Let’s say you’re on the golf course and want to call a client, you could fake your office number. You might also make a call as Santa Claus or Snow White to your child. (Some services and apps can disguise your voice as well.)
Even we in the press have not been above utilizing the tool. Until August 2011, the New York Times sent the number 111-111-1111 for all calls made from its offices to prevent the extensions of reporters from call records so that the reporters later would not have to divulge confidential sources. The paper ultimately abandoned the practice, reportedly in part because people were programming their phones to block that number.
For now, it appears you’ll just have to frown and bear it. You could put your number on the federal do-not-call registry, but I have concluded that’s a waste of time because any company that spoofs its number is not going honor your privacy wishes. (Besides, a fake number can’t be traced even if you report it.) So it’s probably best that you simply let all calls go to voice mail — or, if you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer at all so your number doesn’t find its way onto more robocall lists as a “live” number.
We call 911 in an emergency, but what number does the world’s oldest emergency call telephone service use?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: According to the National Onion Association, the average American eats 20 pounds of onions per year, but if you’re looking for people who keep their Certs handy, just go to Libya, where each person is said to eat 67 pounds per year. Guinness says the largest onion ever grown was a 10-pound, 14-ounce monster by a V. Throup of Silsden, England.