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House Moves To Outlaw Phone Number Spoofing

While the bill would criminalize spoofing, it does make exceptions for victims of domestic violence, crime tipsters, and others with legitimate reasons to conceal their numbers.

Congress is considering a bill to outlaw fraud and harassment through spoofing -- altering phone numbers that appear on caller ID -- after a similar measure died last year.

A bill to outlaw spoofing to defraud or cause harm is headed to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet approved the bill after a hearing Wednesday.

The bill, H.R. 251, would allow victims of domestic violence, crime tipsters, and others with legitimate reasons to conceal their numbers while providing an alternative on caller ID. That distinction clarifies language in the bill that was offered up last year.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said the latest version puts spoofing in context and provides balance to allow alternative contact numbers to appear on caller ID.

"Congressmen have private lines in their offices and keep their direct numbers confidential," he said. "They have outgoing caller ID with a different number. That gives recipients a legitimate number to call back, while maintaining confidentiality of private lines."

The bill targets criminals who use spoofing to gain personal information to access bank accounts, harass victims, or engage in other unscrupulous behaviors. For instance, a criminal who steals a credit card in the mail could use spoofing to get around safety measures that require the recipient to activate the card from their home. Telemarketers with access to several phone numbers associated with one household could use spoofing to fool a potential customer into taking a call that appears to come from a family member.

And, some people have accused campaign staff of using the practice to make it appear they are calling from companies that have no campaign involvement and making opposing candidates look bad.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, questioned whether the bill's exemptions leave room for such campaign tactics to continue. The legislation, aimed at stopping physical and financial harm, does not appear to address the type of harm caused by the potential to skew elections through such actions.

"I worry that maybe we're leaving loophole here that we're not going to address and the issue is going to come back to us at some time," he said.

PointOne VP Staci Pies, who is also president of the Voice on the Net Coalition, said during the hearing, that the coalition supports criminalization of those who commit fraud by making fake numbers appear on caller ID. She and Electronic Privacy Information Center Staff Counsel Allison Knight supported exceptions for legitimate reasons, including the use of temporary numbers.

Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau Chief Kris Montieth said that legislation should ensure that callers dialing 911 from mobile devices still benefit from a helpful form of spoofing that directs callers to dispatch centers matching their locations, not their phone numbers.

Knight praised legislators for distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate uses. She said that domestic violence and stalking victims should be able to use spoofing when calling an abuser to discuss custody or other important issues. Victims should be able to use the same technique when calling companies that may have permissive data-sharing policies and sell information to brokers, she said. She also pointed out that caller ID blocking isn't a complete solution for those trying to maintain privacy because automatic number identification systems and other technology can get around blocks.

Ranking Member Joe Barton, R-Texas, co-sponsored the bill, also called the Truth in Caller ID Act.

The hearing was the subcommittee's first this session. No one spoke out against the legislation.

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