Answerer beware: The name and number that show up in your caller-ID box might not match the person phoning on the other line.

A growing number of stealth companies are offering caller-ID "spoofing" — a service that makes a fake number and name appear on caller ID.

SpoofTel, a Canada-based company offering fake caller-ID services, makes its clients sign agreements that its services be used "for entertainment purposes only" and many reports indicate caller-ID spoofing is largely used for whimsical prank calls.

However, at the same time, SpoofTel notes its biggest patrons are "private investigators, law enforcement, skip tracers, phantom shoppers and includes customers from various North American corporate and commercial to the public interested in keeping their privacy" — a conglomerate of custom- ers that are likely making few crank calls.

Also, the BBC reported last year that "con men are abusing the ability to fake caller ID to make bogus phone calls look like they are coming from a legitimate and trustworthy company."

In Utah, the Division of Consumer Protection did not return calls to comment on whether there have been any complaints of fraud related to spoofing in Utah.

One issue surrounding spoofing companies is that it is often fairly anonymous. For instance, many of these Web-based businesses don't offer customers a way to contact their representatives over the phone or through regular mail. Others have phone numbers listed on their Web sites that don't work.

SpoofTel was the lone company to respond to Deseret Morning News by e-mail.

One reason for all the secrecy may be that the companies are selling a controversial product. The founder of the first spoofing company, Star38, which opened in September 2004, told the New York Times he received harassing phone calls and a death threat. Jason Jepson sold his business shortly after it opened.

Spoofing companies should be ashamed because they are facilitating deceit, says blogger Joseph Stirt, who runs www.bookofjoe.com.

"It is not akin to lying: It is lying," he said. "Having said that, who among us hasn't lied?"

And even Stirt said he could see himself using the service.

"I'd do it to talk to someone I otherwise couldn't reach, if it were really important to me."

The ethics of caller-ID spoofing can get a little gray, but for the most part it is morally wrong, said University of Utah ethics professor Chrisoula Andreou.

There are times, Andreou said, when lying is ethical. Like if you lie to save someone's life — for instance, people who hid Jews during the Holocaust but told Nazi soldiers they were not.

"In some contexts it is OK to lie. It is the right thing to do to lie," but "there needs to be some compelling reasons to do this," Andreou said.

In cases of law enforcement trying to protect the public safety, such spoofing could be ethical, Andreou said, but "just as a service that would be available to everybody, it seems like that would not be OK."

The spoofing service also raises ethical questions for companies that sell caller ID, Andreou said. Those that sell caller ID are telling people that they will be able to know who is calling them. Yet with spoofing, people may not really know who is calling them so their caller-ID service would be of no value.

Across the World Wide Web, any Joe Schmoe can purchase the spoofing at bargain basement rates. SpoofTel offers the service for 10 cents a minute and some companies' prices are cheaper. Users usually call into the spoofing company, enter the number they wish to call and then enter the name and number they want to appear on the caller-ID box. Other companies make customers type the name and number into a Web page.

And while that service may cross some ethical boundaries, it is legal and flourishing in the United States and Canada, and is beginning to catch on internationally as well.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com