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Who's Got Your Number? Soon They May Have Your Address Too

November 23, 2000|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

Pacific Bell next month will begin selling reverse directory information to 411 callers who have a phone number and want to retrieve the corresponding name and address of the person or business.

Should privacy-conscious Californians be concerned? Two consumer advocacy groups say yes. PacBell says no. Either way, PacBell's 7.5 million residential customers--a majority of whom have unpublished numbers--should be aware of the new service, how it works and the potential ramifications.

PacBell's reverse directory service, approved by state regulators last month on a tight vote, allows phone company operators to give out the name and address of the customer assigned to a specific phone number, as long as the information has not been otherwise restricted by the customer.

The service will be offered through PacBell's normal 411 directory assistance operation. The price: 95 cents per request, whether or not the operator provides the information.

PacBell's reverse directory service will glean the appropriate names and addresses from the same database it uses for standard 411 directory assistance. Phone customers who list only their first initial or just their name with no address will have only that information included in the reverse directory, according to the phone company.

Customers who pay 28 cents per month to have their name, address and phone number excluded from the printed directory and the call-in directory assistance service will automatically have that information excluded from the reverse directory as well.

That's a key point for people who want to use PacBell's reverse directory service, because California leads the nation in the percentage of unpublished numbers. That means operators searching the reverse directory will often come up empty-handed--and the caller will be charged 95 cents anyway.

Listed customers who want to be excluded from the reverse directory database must call PacBell at (800) 310-BELL and ask to be changed to "nonpublished" status. There is no charge for the change, but customers who switch must pay the 28-cent monthly fee.

There are other considerations too, especially for people who want to keep their listings out of circulation.

First, consumers should keep in mind that much of the information in the phone company's directory database is already sold to--and used by--other phone companies, many of whom offer reverse directory services using the PacBell data as well as information from other local phone carriers and sometimes from sources such as credit card companies.

Thus, your name, address and phone number may be available through reverse directory offerings on the Internet such as http://www.anywho.com/telq.html or http://www.infospace.com/info/reverse.htm, or through call-in services from AT&T or wireless carriers.

In addition, it is getting harder to keep unpublished numbers from being discovered, largely because of the growing home use of caller ID features. That feature displays--and can "record"--an incoming caller's phone number and the billing name associated with it.

Callers can thwart the release of their name and number by blocking caller ID with a special code, or by requesting that the phone company permanently block the release of their phone number on all outgoing calls from home.

PacBell employees often don't mention the so-called complete blocking option. In fact, they sometimes discourage customers from using it because it undermines the value--and thus, the profitable sale--of caller ID. Still, the blocking feature is free and must be provided on request.

Clearly, the growing use of reverse directories means that consumers who have security or privacy concerns must be careful about giving out their phone number.

But the phone companies also bear some of the responsibility, particularly when it comes to preventing listing errors and making sure private information stays out of the directory system.

In recent years, phone companies have repeatedly disclosed listing information that customers have paid to keep private.

Thousands of Californians found that out the hard way in 1998 when their phone company, Verizon Communications (formerly GTE), mistakenly printed the unlisted names and addresses of as many as 50,000 customers.

*

Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass covers telecommunications.

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