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.


Smart computing

By Jacob Markey, Summer 2010 LifeSmarts intern

In just a few weeks, LifeSmarts teams from across the country will travel to Hollywood to compete for the 2011 LifeSmarts National Championship. They will get the chance to put their knowledge to the test, while also enjoying the city, meeting some great new people, and having a ton of fun.

Like other readers of the Savvy Consumer Blog, they would be wise to review this month’s LifeSmarts post on Technology. As I mentioned back in December, there are many safety concerns consumers should keep in mind online to keep their personal information private online to better avoid identity theft. With more consumers going online to buy goods, conduct online banking, or read the news, identity theft is a persistent problem for consumers.

Here are some helpful tips to ensure that you have a safer experience online:

  • Know that the site you are buying from is safe and reliable. Be thorough and review a person’s or online store’s background information: Check the person’s online ratings to see if others give the seller positive or negative reviews; see if the business is accredited with the Better Business Bureau in their state; make sure the site is secure if you are paying with your credit card. By taking these types of actions, you will decrease the likelihood that you will do business with a person looking to scam you.
  • Watch the actions you take when using an unsecured wireless network at places like cafes, hotels, and airports. Computer thieves can snoop on unsecured connections to steal your personal information and exploit it if they acquire it. It is recommended that you abstain from reviewing banking and other sensitive information when using an unsecured wireless network. If you need to work on confidential information, it is better to choose a secured wired connection or an encrypted wireless connection that requires a password.

Teens must be aware that there is much to watch out for on the Internet. Even Web sites that look harmless may contain dangerous information. If you have any concerns about these types of issues, ask your parents for advice.

Identity theft and computer issues remain a problem. Following smart Internet browsing will help decrease the likelihood that your computer will become infected, your personal information stolen, and losing a ton of money.

LifeSmarts: teens’ technology education destination

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

The thought of teaching a modern teenager about technology may seem counterproductive to many people. Indeed, it is teens who seem to be the ones on the cutting edge of technology. The vast majority of teens not only use the latest social networking sites like Facebook, but they are also often inseparable from their cell phones.

Unfortunately, expertise about how to use these technologies doesn’t always equate to knowledge of how to do so safely.  Today, it is more important than ever for teens to know how to use technology wisely. For example, snooping on unsecure wifi connections (such as those found in many coffee shops) is increasingly easy for unscrupulous scam artists. Privacy, which for many Facebook-obsessed teens may seem to be an afterthought, could actually be critically important in college admissions and getting jobs later in life.  Online scholarship and grant scams is also an area where NCL has noticed an uptick as well.

Fortunately, there are tools and smart practices that teens can use to avoid some of the most common technology pitfalls. It is these good technology habits that LifeSmarts’ technology curriculum seeks to promote. LifeSmarts team members learn, for example, the importance of taking advantage of their privacy settings on Facebook to make sure third parties can’t get access to sensitive personal information. Knowing how to differentiate a secure Web site from an insecure one can save teens from having nasty malware surreptitiously installed on their computers. Understanding the importance of using strong passwords (as opposed to easy-to-guess common words) can save teens from seeing their laptops become part of a botnet or worse.

During National Consumer Protection Week, we urge teens and their parents to consider the important value of this knowledge in today’s 24/7 digitally-connected world. By becoming savvy technology consumers, LifeSmarts participants become better prepared to choose their own cell phone plans, get broadband service at their first apartments, and pass on lessons learned in LifeSmarts to friends, family members and, eventually, their own children.

For more information on the LifeSmarts technology curriculum, visit To learn more about National Consumer Protections Week, visit

Resolve to be a better consumer in 2011

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

The start of a new year inevitably means many people will be making New Year’s resolutions. Some of the more common resolutions include spending more time with family and friends, getting into shape, quitting smoking, or getting more organized. Unfortunately, according to researchers, while more than half of consumers believe that they will fulfill their resolutions, just 12 percent will actually be successful.

As consumer advocates, we frequently preach the value of setting small, defined and achievable goals. For example, instead of resolving to get out of debt in a single year (a goal that many make, but few achieve), resolve to allocate an extra $30-50 per month towards paying down debt. In this way, you achieve success early (you’re 8.3 percent of the way to your yearly goal there after the first month!), creating a small victory and incentivizing additional work towards the goal.

So, in honor of 2011, here are 11 achievable goals that consumers can resolve to accomplish in the New Year.

  1. Pay 1 percent more on top of your minimum monthly mortgage payment. Doing so on a typical 30-year fixed rate mortgage could knock months and hundreds (or thousands) of dollars off the cost of the loan over its lifetime.
  2. Don’t make any online purchases from a company you haven’t researched with the Better Business Bureau. is a wealth of information on online and “brick and mortar” companies, including complaints made and resolved. Don’t shop online without it!
  3. Pay more than the minimum monthly payment on your credit cards. Credit card interest rates are often in excess of 10 percent and may be 20 percent or more. Unless your investments are returning profits at a greater rate than your credit card interest rates, it makes a lot of sense to “invest” in paying down high-interest debt.
  4. Check your credit report at least twice. Consumers are entitled to a free credit report from each of the major credit reporting agencies once per year. While these reports may not give you your credit score for free, you can see if there are old accounts or incorrect information that you can fix and (hopefully) improve your credit score. This small step could save you thousands on home or auto loans where credit scores play a big role in interest rates.
  5. Do a “communications audit” once per year. Most consumers subscribe to some combination of cable TV, wireless phone, wired phone (with local and long distance) and broadband Internet service. At least once a year, gather the bills for these services and total up what you’re paying for all of them. Then do an honest appraisal of what you actually use. Many consumer will find that they use their cell phones for most long distance calls and don’t need a second long distance plan on their home phone service. Other consumers may find that they rarely watch premium movie channels and can drop them from their cable package.
  6. Add any new phone numbers to the federal “Do Not Call” list. Consumers who change residence, switch carriers, or get new cell phones may also get new phone numbers. If you want to limit telemarketing calls to these numbers, consider visiting to add these new numbers to the “Do Not Call” registry. Extra Credit: Some states maintain their own “do not call” lists. Check with your state government to see if such a list exists and add numbers to that as well.
  7. Have a “shredding party!” Consumers tend to accumulate lots of paper, including bills, credit card offers, account statements and other materials, which may contain lots of personally identifying information. These can become fodder for identity thieves. Invest in a good shredder then invite friends over with their bills, credit card offers, etc. and shred away. Here’s a great guide to throwing your own “shredding party.”
  8. Create a household budget. It’s tremendously difficult to pay down debt if you aren’t living within your means to begin with. For most people, creating a simple personal or family budget is the first step in figuring out what their “means” are. This doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds, and having a good handle on the money coming in and going out of family accounts can actually relieve a lot of stress. The BBB has a great guide for creating a budget here.
  9. Increase your 401(k) contribution by 1 percent. Many consumers may have been turned off on investing after the recent economic meltdown. However, you still need to save for retirement, and – for most consumers – that means investing in a 401(k) plan. By increasing your contribution by just 1 percent, you probably won’t miss the money and you’ll be investing in your future.
  10. Check your privacy settings on Facebook. Let’s face it: It seems like more of us are on Facebook these days than aren’t. Unfortunately, most users never take a look at their privacy settings. You may be sharing more of your personal information with marketers and other users than you’d like. Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s step-by-step guide to maximizing your privacy on Facebook.
  11. Don’t give to a charity you haven’t checked out first. The holidays are a season ripe for charity scams – where unscrupulous fraudsters use the names of respected charities to con consumers out of their money. Fortunately, a number of online resources are available to help consumers check out a charity ahead of time, including, and For more tips on avoiding charity scams, check out our tip page by clicking here.

Genetic testing and consumer rights

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

It seems that not a day goes by without headlines announcing another scientific breakthrough related to the study of genetics. The science of genetics has undoubtedly played a key role in addressing many of the diseases that afflict millions of consumers. In addition, genetic testing may help consumers understand the diseases they may be predisposed to and take appropriate action.

A natural worry for consumers, however, is how this most personal of information could be misused, particularly by employers to deny them a job or health insurance companies to deny coverage or make coverage more expensive.

Fortunately, consumers have protections. First, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) makes it illegal for health insurance companies to exclude individuals from group coverage due to genetic predisposition to disease. The law also states that genetic predisposition to a disease does not constitute a preexisting condition without a current diagnosis.

Consumers can also rely on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits health insurance companies from denying coverage to individuals or raising premiums because of genetic predisposition to disease. The law also prohibits employers from basing decisions on hiring, firing, job placement, or promotions on genetic information.

The Council for Responsible Genetics, one of the leading public interest groups focused on genetics and biotechnology, has developed a very informative Consumer Genetic Privacy Manual, which gives consumers an excellent overview of the issues surrounding genetics and consumers. In particular, consumers concerned about protecting their genetic information from prying eyes should refer to the “Tips for Protecting Your Genetic Privacy” section of the Manual.

Privacy is going to be one of the big issues facing consumer and public interest advocates in the coming year. Perhaps no more personal form of information is a person’s genetic information. It is for this reason that we will be monitoring this issue closely in the months to come.

Advocates on board with ‘Do Not Track’

NCL supports the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposal to allow consumers to block advertisers from tracking them online. As David Vladeck, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection testified on December 2, industry self-regulation has to date failed to adequately protect consumers’ privacy. The FTC has proposed a “uniform and comprehensive consumer choice mechanism” for online behavioral advertising, likely as a feature of Internet browsers. Advocates at the National Consumers League support the FTC’s proposed rule for a simple reason: consumers want to control their environment easily and persistently. These days, the average consumer is barraged online with marketing offers from companies using tracking technology who think they know what their customers want — or are trying to predict it. We agree with the FTC’s position that such technology can and should be implemented in such a way that it does not undermine the advertiser-supported business model that has helped give consumers such a treasure trove of free and low-cost content on the Internet.

The beauty of this so-called “Do Not Track” technology is that doesn’t require maintenance of lists; it just lets online advertisers know not to track you. Experts say the technology for Do Not Track is easily adapted to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. We agree with Beth Givens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, who said: “online tracking is inherently offensive to people. The notion that there are electronic eyeballs following you as you surf the Web frankly bothers people.”

NCL will be following closely the debate over FTC’s proposal and the Do Not Track technology in particular.


A sucker for public opinion research

By Mimi Johnson, Director of NCL Health Policy

The other night, the land line rang and, though I did not recognize the name or number, I answered.  My number is on the ‘Do Not Call’ list, which has – for the most part – kept the telemarketers away.  Rather than someone trying to sell me something, I now frequently get calls with people seeking my opinion.

While many might cringe and eagerly hang up when they hear that phrase ‘do you have a few minutes …’, I get a little excited.  Of course I have a few minutes to share my opinion.  I grew up always wondering who on earth was being polled about this or that, because it certainly wasn’t me.   In the last year or two, I’ve participated in polls and surveys about politics, health reform and the health industry, the regional power company, among other things.

Last night, I was able to share my thoughts on transportation in the region.  As the public transit system prepares to make cuts to services and raise fares, and the roads grow more clogged with cars each day, I surely had a thing or two to say!

At NCL, we frequently rely on consumer surveys to gauge consumer opinions on and understanding of various issues.  With this information, we are able to advocate on your behalf.  We testify before Congress or federal agencies, and we produce educational materials to address your questions and concerns.  Recognizing the value of this information, I have definitely grown to appreciate those “pesky” calls a bit more.

So, the next time you’re settling down to relax at night and the phone rings, think twice about ignoring it or cutting the call short.  As a savvy consumer, you should take every opportunity afforded to you to share your thoughts and opinions about products and services. But if you don’t want to participate in these surveys, that’s up to you — check out this amusing piece from the Consumerist.