Calls From the Wild

(Photo Illustration By The Washington Post; Image By Istockphoto)
By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Unknown, unavailable, out of area, anonymous, private. Clues to some "Da Vinci Code" mystery? Not exactly, but some experts say this string of words is now widely associated with another mystery. They're the display messages that appear when Caller ID doesn't ID the caller.

But, wait a second, why doesn't Caller ID identify every call and caller?

Good question, says Greg Smith, president and chief executive of Accudata Technologies in Allen, Tex., who thinks consumers who regularly see these terms flash on their Caller ID displays should be asking that of their telephone carriers.

"The caller's number should always show unless there is some technical difficulty. But the 'unknown,' 'unavailable' and 'out of area' . . . you should never get those," he says. "We all do get them, and the reason we do is we are all getting cheated."

Telephone companies have the technology not only to identify the number in nearly 100 percent of the calls you receive, says Smith, but also to identify the caller's name -- or at least the name listed on the phone's account. But how often does that happen? Half the time? Less?

"It is a financial decision some of these telephone carriers make," Smith says of why Caller ID services sometimes don't deliver.

In the spirit of full disclosure, you should know that Accudata Technologies is one of about 20 line information database (LIDB) companies nationwide in the business of collecting, storing and delivering telephone information -- including providing names and numbers of callers displayed via Caller ID. So Smith and his company have a vested interest in phone company Caller ID services operating at maximum efficiency. When a phone company can't find a caller's name and number in its database, it has to reach into other phone-info databases, such as Accudata's, and pay a small fee.

"We call it 'coop-etition' here," says Smith, adding that Accudata charges an average of a penny per look-up.

But some phone-service providers are unwilling to dip into the appropriate LIDB to provide the Caller ID info their customers are paying $6 to $8 for each month.

Why not? Do the math, says Smith. Say a typical telephone receives 200 calls a month. About half of those calls come from within the same phone system -- as when one BellSouth customer calls another BellSouth customer. For those calls, the caller's name and number are going to be in BellSouth's database, so it won't cost BellSouth anything to provide them.

But the other 100 calls come from outside the service provider's system. They require going to outside databases to fetch the info. At a penny per look-up, those Caller ID calls would cost a phone company about $1 a month per Caller ID customer. Let's say a phone company decides not to pay the penny to look into an outside database for half those calls. It saves itself 50 cents a month per Caller ID customer.

Chicken feed? Not when you figure that the nation's three biggest telecommunications companies -- Verizon Communications Inc., BellSouth Corp. and AT&T Inc. -- provide local and wireless phone service to more than 200 million customers. The savings for not paying the penny can be millions to tens of millions of dollars each month.

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