Monday, June 08, 2009

Trust Caller ID, Become a Crime Victim!

Fraud using the telephone is nothing new; it's probably been around as long as there have been telephones. After all, a telephone is merely a communication device and can be used to dupe someone into doing something they shouldn't have.

Saying that, telephone technology, which has grown rapidly in recent years, has given fraudsters a wide array of new tools to use to depart common people and even large businesses from their hard-earned money.

Take caller ID for instance, which is marketed as a means of protecting our privacy. When I say marketed, it's normally sold for a fee so we can see who is calling us. The irony of the situation is that for a fee, just about anyone can make the caller ID appear to whatever number they desire.

The ability to spoof (fake/impersonate) caller ID has been around for a few years. Collection agencies, private investigators and even law enforcement agencies use it to get people to answer their telephone. In these instances, they are normally paying the telecom company for the service. I guess this means the people selling caller ID and the ability to spoof it are making money on both sides of the fence.

While some might argue the semi-legitimate (?) uses are deceptive in themselves, I'm far more concerned when criminals or malicious beings use it to further one of their schemes.

For instance, caller ID spoofing has been used to dispatch a SWAT team to an unsuspecting person's house, and a Pennsylvania man made obscene phone calls to women and made the caller ID appear as if they were coming from within the house. It has also subjected a lot of people to abusive return phone calls when their number was spoofed and angry consumers wanted to complain.

Of even greater concern is when caller ID spoofing is used by "stalkers." In January, Alexis A. Moore did a very well researched post on her blog about this subject. Moore is a "crime victim advocate and expert in cyber stalking, identity theft, traditional stalking, domestic violence and privacy protection," according to her profile on Blogspot.

Before I move forward, please note that it seems to have worked on a 911 dispatch system. In this case, law enforcement – who is known to spoof their numbers – is being victimized by the same technology they use to cloak calls themselves. Please note that if anyone should be able to legally spoof calls, it’s probably law enforcement. Nonetheless, it is ironic.

More and more frequently, caller ID is being used by organized (and maybe some not so organized) criminals to commit fraud.

Last month, spoofing caller ID was reported to be used as a tool by an international credit card fraud ring that was broken up by the NYPD and the Queens District Attorney's office. The ring was using an easily purchased portable spoofing tool, known as a Spoof Card. Spoof Cards can be bought by anyone who has the money to buy them, right over the Internet! Besides spoofing a number, the cards can be used to disguise a person's voice and gender.

The ring, which was described as stretching from New York to Nigeria, obtained cards and activated them using a number they spoofed as legitimately belonging to the intended recipient of the card. Please note, most banks require you to activate a card from a known number when you receive it in the mail. I wonder how many of these same banks are using caller ID spoofing technology in their collections departments.

While the methods used by this group included counterfeiting, mail theft, taking over accounts and fraud applications to get the cards, using a Spoof Card was obviously a pretty successful tool used in furthering the fraud scheme. The victims were from all over North America and the cards were used worldwide. According to the authorities, the financial impact of this activity was estimated at $12 million in the past year alone.

While devices like Spoof Card are an issue, the problem doesn't stop there. Semi-legitimate (?) marketing firms, such as Voice Touch, Inc. and Network Foundations LLC – ones that the FTC shut down last month – were using robocalls with spoofed caller IDs. Of course, there were a lot of complaints that these warranties they were selling (provided by Transcontinental Warranty, Inc.) were virtually useless if you tried to use them, too.

Spoofing caller ID has led to a rash of vishing (phishing by telephone scams), also. Last year in November, I wrote about a call I was getting offering to lower my interest rate. The calls in question were robo-generated and the intent was to get you give up your credit card numbers to a scammer. As of this month, I received another one of these calls. Besides this particular scam, there have been numerous reports of financial institutions having their telephone numbers spoofed in vishing schemes.

Of course, Spoof Card isn't the only spoofing service out there. Some services offer software programs that can be used to spoof calls over a Web interface. One even calls itself

The services that allow it to be done over a Web interface enable the activity to be performed on a much larger scale. A simple Google search for "caller ID spoofing" brings up all kinds of Adsense ads selling a wide range of caller ID spoofing services. Of course, I shouldn't single out Google or Adsense; my guess is that any search on most commercial browsers will net the same type of advertising.

With VoIP technology in full vogue and services like Skype, the fraudulent use of caller id spoofing services now can feasibly be done across borders. This will make it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute these cases.

In 2007, two bills were sent to the Senate to address caller ID spoofing. Neither was voted on and as a result no effective law has been put into place to address this issue. This year, Senator Bill Nelson (FL) and three co-sponsors introduced another bill (S.30) dubbed "The Truth in Caller ID Act."

In my humble opinion, the need for this legislation is pretty apparent. Laws are designed to protect people and it there are too many good reasons people need to be protected from caller ID spoofing!

The right place to file a complaint about something like this is the Federal Trade Commission. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). There is also a link on the page to file a complaint on an overseas entity.

You can also write your representatives (elected officials) and encourage them to make 2009 the year that they finally pass some legislation on this issue.