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Saturday, June 1, 1996

Caller ID a way of life now...and to some a mixed blessing

Harte-Hanks Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - A Texas secretary dialed a wrong telephone number and spent the rest of the night fielding phone calls from another woman convinced she was having an affair with her husband.

Turns out when she misdialed the number, her call was traced by a Caller ID machine.

Instances like this may become common as more and more Texans sign up for Caller ID, dubbed "the electronic peephole." Left in the wake of new technology, critics say, are invasions of privacy - which, in at least one Texas case, led to the loss of life.

Supporters argue the machine promotes safety by letting Texans know who is calling before answering the phone, which can cut down on crank, harassing or unwanted calls.

One thing is for sure, said Teresa Staats, a Texan who serves on a statewide telecommunications panel examining whether telephone customers have been informed about the pros and cons of Caller ID: Making a call these days is no longer as simple as picking up the phone.

"People have no idea what it means anymore to pick up the telephone and make a call," said Staats, a director of marketing at Wichita General Hospital. "The average Joe Blow thinks he's just using the phone. People don't know that something as innocuous as a telephone has turned out to be dangerous."

There are two sides to the coin, said Leslie Kjellstrand, director of public information for the Public Utility Commission.

"For a lot of people, it's a wonderful form of technology that allows you to see what calls you've had," she said. "Others really don't want their number known, even by the people they call."

With Caller ID, approved by the Legislature in 1993, consumers use a unit that displays the name and number of the person calling - even if the caller's number is unpublished - before they decide whether to answer the phone.

The Legislature created a panel last year to study whether Texans have been adequately informed about Caller ID. Since then, members have reviewed advertising campaigns and are gearing up for their next meeting this month. They expect to report their findings in August.

Staats said she worries Caller ID is becoming a "silent invasion of privacy."

That invasion has proved deadly in the past, some say.
A 21-year-old San Antonio woman was murdered last year after her ex-boyfriend used Caller ID to trace her location. Also, last year in Nashville, police speculated Caller ID may have played a role in a 31-year-old woman's death when her boyfriend became enraged by a series of repeated phone calls on the Caller ID unit.

On the other hand, some say Caller ID has cut down on prank callers, wrong numbers and con games. In one case, it even helped New Jersey police snag a man who ordered a pizza and then robbed the delivery man. The robber's telephone number turned up on the pizza parlor's Caller ID.
About 1.5 million Texans - or 27 percent of Southwestern Bell customers - have Caller ID, said Melody Doney, the company's product manager for the service.

In Abilene, about 25 percent of Southwestern Bell customers have Caller ID, which is slightly below the state average, Doney said.

Caller ID is available to about 90 percent of Southwestern Bell customers. The service costs $6.50 a month, plus an initial $5.50 subscription fee. The unit ranges in cost from $25 to $60, Doney said.
The big lure for the service is safety, Doney said.

"More and more people are security oriented," she said. "They want the screening function ... (they) want to know who's calling before they pick up the phone."

Southwestern Bell has repeatedly released educational materials in telephone bills, Doney said. The company also has special education efforts for women's shelters and law enforcement.

"Some people get upset because (private listings) show up on a pizza Caller ID board or a doctor's Caller ID board," Kjellstrand said. "A lot of people just do not realize that their unlisted number is actually susceptible to Caller ID unless they personally take action."

The Public Utility Commission fields between six and 10 calls every day about Caller ID. Most of the callers want to know how to block their phone lines. Since Sept. 1, 187 complaints have been logged with PUC, Kjellstrand said.

All content copyright 1996, Harte-Hanks, The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine


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