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Caller ID Met With Caution as it Spreads Across Country

January 4, 1993

BOSTON (AP) _ Concerns about privacy may keep Caller ID, a phone service touted as an electronic peephole to let customers see who’s calling, from becoming a ringing success nationwide.

More than 20 states now have the service, which displays the number and sometimes even the name of the caller. It has won praise for deterring obscene and annoying phone calls.

But because of privacy concerns, many states have slapped on restrictions that phone companies fear will undercut the service’s value.

″At what point does the subscriber say, ‘It’s not worth it anymore?’ I don’t know,″ said Clifton Metcalf, a spokesman for Southern Bell in North Carolina. ″We’re going to find out.″

The restrictions imposed by utility regulators allow callers to block their numbers from appearing on a display unit by the phone. This can be done by pressing certain keys when making each call or, in some states, by having the line blocked off entirely from being decoded.

After the state imposed such restrictions in Massachusetts, New England Telephone officials found them so onerous that they initially withdrew their plans to offer the service.

Susan Butta, a spokeswoman for New England Telephone, said executives worried the restrictions might make the service harder to sell. They eventually changed their minds and decided to try it.

U.S. West Communications, which serves more than a dozen states, decided to include the blocking options in its proposals to utility regulators, not waiting for officials to order them, said Gwen Law, a company project manager.

Consumer advocates and civil liberties groups say such restrictions are necessary. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court ruled last year that Caller ID - without the blocking options - violated the state wiretap law.

Critics often point to battered women or undercover police officers as examples of people who need to keep their phone numbers secret.

″There are some people for whom the risk of forgetting to block is very great,″ said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America.

But New Jersey Bell, which pioneered Caller ID in the late 1980s, doesn’t offer any blocking, and fewer than 1 percent of customers have complained about phone numbers leaking out, said company spokesman James W. Carrigan.

On the other hand, Carrigan said the service has helped deter nuisance calls.

About 200,000 New Jersey Bell customers, or 4.6 percent, subscribe to Caller ID. That compares with a 28 percent acceptance rate for Call Waiting, which allows customers to receive more than one call at the same time.

But Carrigan insisted customers in his state who don’t have Caller ID still benefit, ″because the other people don’t know whether you have the service, so they won’t make that (harassing) call.″

In some places, phone companies say they are succeeding with the service despite the restrictions.

Centel Corp. in Las Vegas, which serves southern Nevada, offers the blocking options and still has more than 10 percent of its customers subscribing.

Dianna Fyke, a marketing manager for Centel, said there were some initial fears, but once people get accustomed to the service it becomes ″a matter of fact thing.″

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