Caller-ID spoofing burns fire equipment company

Todd Smith, owner of the Maine Fire Equipment Company, spent Wednesday battling a conflagration of angry callers convinced that his small business was responsible for threatening them during the course of pushy credit-card solicitations.

Maine Fire Equipment (Web site slogan: "Are you protected?") doesn't issue credit cards and obviously doesn't need this kind of grief, which essentially prevented them from conducting business yesterday.

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.

(March 3 update: "In defense of Caller-ID spoofing.")

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," Smith told the Morning Sentinel of Waterville, Maine, yesterday. "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's faring on Day 2 of his misery proved difficult for the simple reason that Maine Fire Equipment has stopped answering its phone. Instead, callers hear this plaintive recording:

"If you're calling for fire-related business or service, please leave a message after the tone. If you're calling because you received a phone call originating from this number regarding a credit-card scam, we did not make that phone call; you need to call the (Verizon) Unlawful Call Center. That number is 800-518-5507. Please help us put an end to these calls we're receiving."

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 says, 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.

Smith says 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."

I've yet to hear back from Verizon.

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

"There is no doubt that Caller ID spoofing is on the rise," says 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 anti-spoofing legislation and a Senate bill was making progress at the end of last year.

In the meantime, Douglas says 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," he says. "The technique can also be used to defeat authentication systems for banking services and voicemail."

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.

You can see a trailer for the movie here, and while it may appeal to fans of action thrillers, it will be unfortunate if the film romanticizes or otherwise encourages spoofing.

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 hopes he'll be able to turn his phone back on tomorrow -- or at least by Monday.

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