Many of us rely on caller ID to screen our calls and protect our privacy, but maybe you shouldn't trust that little digital display. It turns out that when you pick up the phone, you can't always believe your eyes -- or ears.
Why? Because of a technological trick called "Caller ID Spoofing" that allows callers to change the name and number that come up on the display when they call someone.
It used to take sophisticated technology and expertise to "spoof" a number, but commercial spoofing services have brought the trick to the masses. Now, for as little as $10 an hour, customers can dial into a spoofing service that gives them the ability to change the number they appear to be calling from.
Spoofing services even offer you the ability to disguise your voice. A man can choose to sound like a woman, and vice versa.
Crooks using their own spoofing equipment recently contacted hundreds of Lancaster, Pa., residents -- including Gail Gray, the mayor's wife. They pretended to be with a local bank and asked for sensitive account details.
Gray told ABC News she came close to giving the con artists sensitive financial information. "It threw a scare into me initially," she said. "It's like they knew they had a bite on the line and they were ready to hook one."
As the economy has gone down, financial scams have gone up, and this is one of the ploys the crooks are pulling -- spoofing the phone numbers of financial institutions to gain people's trust and then simply asking people for their financial details.
"We have got to update the laws in order to keep up with the sophistication of the criminals," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Florida is the only state that has banned caller-ID spoofing. Florida legislators made spoofing a first degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. The law went into effect in October 2008, and the spoofing industry is suing to overturn it. Idaho and Alaska have also considered anti-spoofing laws, but have not finalized any bills so far.
The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would make only the fraudulent use of spoofing illegal. Nelson explained that caller-ID spoofing is like a crowbar. It can be used as a legitimate tool or to commit crimes.
"We need to give prosecutors the updated tools to go after this new, very sophisticated criminal that is using technology now in the place of the crowbar," he said.
Attorney Mark Del Bianco, who represents several spoofing companies, said banning spoofing would be an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
"There are many people that feel that because it can be misused you ought to make it as broadly illegal as possible, and that is just wrong," said Del Bianco.
Del Bianco listed several legitimate uses of spoofing. For example, secret shoppers that companies hire to anonymously test customer service sometimes spoof their numbers to hide their identities. Battered women's shelters use the technology to protect their residents. And business executives have used it to display their corporate phone number when they are calling somebody back from a private cell phone. But, of course, pranksters love the service, too.