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Your number is up

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Caller ID and its clandestine cousins are here to stay. Privacy advocates may just have to hang it up.

We sure like our gee-whiz phone features, especially the Caller ID box that warns us when that talkative neighbor is calling or our boss is looking for us.

But the control it gives us has made some of us abandon civil behavior. Isn't it about time for some etiquette rules in this brave new world?

Caller ID, which displays the name and phone number of incoming calls, is exploding in popularity, along with its cousin, the call retrieval feature Star 69.

In 1997, just 15 percent of U.S. households had Caller ID or used Star 69. By early 1999, that number had more than doubled, to 33 percent, according to telecommunications researchers Carlbatt and Associates. One expert predicts that two-thirds of American households will use the features in the next decade.

And what are people doing with this newfound power? Some are using it to hunt down the poor souls who call them. Many people don't realize that their names and numbers are logged onto a Caller ID box even if they hang up after a few rings. As a result, the person receiving the call can then shake down the caller to get an apology for a misdialed phone number or a confession that yes, he called but failed to leave a message.

Nearly everyone has a story like this.

A friend of mine misdialed a phone number, then realized her mistake when she heard a strange voice on the answering machine. She hung up. That night a woman called, demanding, "Who are you? Why did you call me? I have your number on my Caller ID." It took a few moments before my friend realized the call was from the number she had earlier dialed. "Be more careful next time," the woman said brusquely as she hung up.

That would have been bad enough, but the next night the woman's husband called my friend and wanted to know why she kept calling. He didn't believe her when she insisted that he must have forgotten to erase the number on his Caller ID box.

Say you call a wrong number but realize it only when you hear a strange voice answer. Being the coward you are, you hang up. A few seconds later, your phone rings. "Did you just call here and hang up on me?" Curses! Your wrong number punched in Star 69 to track you down. You deliver an embarrassed apology.

But geez, can't she let it go? Did it shave that much off her life to get a wrong number?

There's a revolution under way, and you probably don't even know it.

"What Caller ID and some of the new phone features have changed is, now the person that is in charge is the person being called. They have the control instead of the caller," said Susan Fox, a California etiquette consultant who is writing the soon-to-be-published Etiquette for Dummies.

People are getting so juiced by this newfound power, Fox says, that they are forgetting the Golden Rule, making harassing phone calls instead.

We are in the middle of the growing pains of a new technology, not unlike the onset of the answering machine, notes Rutgers professor James Katz, author of Connections: Social and Cultural Studies of the Telephone in American Life.

Answering machines were introduced in the 1950s, grew moderately in use in the 1960s and became widespread in the 1970s. Households with answering machines moved into the majority during the '80s.

People were insulted to hear a machine pick up in the 1970s, Katz notes. They would leave a curse-laden message or hang up angrily and later dress down the machine owner.

"We are facing one of the most revolutionary changes in the telephone since Alexander Graham Bell made that first phone call in 1876," Katz said. "'Clearly it's a power shift. Like every other technology, it has a double-edged effect; it's really the way people use it. And people are very creative in finding both good and bad ways to use it."

Some privacy advocates fear that abuse victims, police informants and undercover officers will be put in danger by this gadget that reveals where they are calling from.

In Florida, callers can dial Star 67 before making a call, and their name and number will be blocked at no charge. But if you have an unlisted number but forget to block your call, your name and number will pop up on a Caller ID box.

In 10 or 15 years, Katz predicts, we won't think much about Caller ID.

"I certainly think our children will think of Caller ID the same way we think of answering machines, that it's the natural order of things," he said.

That idea saddens some privacy advocates.

"That's like saying everyone should just be willing to be searched by police," said Emily Whitfield, national spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We certainly think it's possible to strike a balance between the rights of callers and (those of) the person being called. In some states you have to pay for an unlisted number, then pay again to have your unlisted number blocked on Caller ID. We think the phone company should make every effort to have call blocking available free of charge and notify a person when their call is being identified."

In the meantime, Fox said, new gadgets do not mean there are new rules of etiquette.

"People need to be aware of how they are abusing these technologies," she said. "They are coming down the pike so quickly we haven't had the time to figure out what is proper. But really, it's just common sense. Treat people the way you want to be treated."

For whom the bell tolls: Caller ID etiquette

Tell your friends and family you have Caller ID. Tell them how it works and what the features are, to ward off hurt feelings and embarrassment.

Resist the urge to show off that you know who's calling. Just answer the phone normally. Otherwise, you may spook your caller.

Caller ID records a phone number even if a caller decides not to leave a message. If you absolutely can't resist the urge to find out why a stranger called you, don't be rude and scold the person who left no message. Be polite and say you saw that she called, and you wonder what she needed.

If you're using another person's telephone line, press Star 67 to block their name and number.

As Caller ID becomes more prevalent, consider leaving a polite message if you misdial, such as: "I apologize; I must have dialed a wrong number." This should eliminate a hostile return call.

Similarly, avoid the urge to call every number that pops up on your Caller ID box.