More than two years after we launched Mr. Number for Android, Google has decided that our app does not comply with their latest content policy and has ordered us to turn off our crowd-sourced Caller ID feature. Google has told us that you, our users, cannot share your contact lists for Caller ID even if you believe you have your contacts’ permission. Although Google approved the feature as recently as last month, we have no choice but to turn off crowd-sourced Caller ID for now, because Android is not the open platform that we thought it was.
We’ll continue to provide conventional Caller ID using information we license from commercial databases. Mr. Number will still be the best free Caller ID app on the market, as well as a full-featured messaging app and the most popular call and text blocker available. But we will not be able to identify mystery and spam calls and texts as reliably as we did before. If you were paying for the premium version, you will not be billed again.
We’re sorry for the inconvenience and we’ll keep working to bring back crowd-sourced Caller ID.
The Full Story — for People Who Want to Know
We launched Mr. Number two years ago to give you more control over your phone. We believe you have the right to know who is calling or texting you, and the right to block any person or company you don’t want to hear from again. But there was no reliable way to know who was calling you if the number was not already in your contact list. So we invented crowd-sourced Caller ID.
You may not always know who is calling you, but some other Mr. Number member probably does. When you opt in to crowd-sourced Caller ID, you let us look up mystery numbers in your mobile contacts on behalf of other users and we do the same for you for free. As a bonus, crowd-sourcing helps us to identify telemarketers, phishers, robocallers, and other kinds of spam so we can block them all for users automatically.
People loved it. We’ve spent almost nothing on advertising, but almost 5 million people have downloaded the Android version of Mr. Number and most of you opted in to crowd-sourced Called ID. Combining this with commercial sources we were able to return a name for almost 80% of the calls and texts our users got from numbers they didn’t recognize.
Mr. Number is now one of the top 200 apps for Android phones in the US, with an average rating of 4.4 from more than 60,000 users. It’s not available for iPhone because Apple does not have any APIs for Caller ID, regardless of where the data comes from, but almost 80,000 people have signed our petition to Apple requesting Mr. Number for iPhone.
Success brought competitors who offered crowd-sourced Caller ID to their millions of users. But Google has ordered all of us to turn off the feature.
Why Google Objects to Crowd-sourced Caller ID
Google contacted us in June with a number of concerns.
First, Google pointed out that your contacts haven’t consented to be in Mr. Number’s database. True, but your contacts don’t get to consent before you upload them to Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google itself. (Since Google can share data across all of its products, it’s not clear how Google uses your contact data.) Like Google, Facebook, Salesforce and every other app that works with contact data, we rely on your permission. In fact, we told you not to opt in to crowd-sourced Caller ID unless you had permission from their contacts and we offered a paid version instead.
By the way, anyone can control how they appear in Mr. Number or remove all their data from our database at any time by clicking “Your Caller ID” on our home page, without creating an account or writing to customer support or any of the hoops that other companies make you jump through.
Second, Google said that we were publishing private information: the names of people calling you. We disagreed. Telling you that the person calling your mobile phone right now is named Joe is not the same as making Joe’s phone number public. Joe has already shared his phone number with you, simply by calling you, and you have the right to know who is calling or texting you before you answer. And if Joe dials *67 to block his number, he blocks Mr. Number too.
Google accepted this and asked us to add some more disclosure language to our opt-in page, which we did.
Google Changes Its Mind — and Its Content Policy
A few weeks later Google made a subtle change to its content policy. Previously apps were barred from publishing personal information, unless authorized. Now they cannot publish or disclose personal information. Of course, all Caller ID apps disclose personal information. Google also changed its mind about authorization, telling us that you, our users, cannot share contact lists for Caller ID even if you say you have your contacts’ permission.
There is no court of appeal and we and our competitors have to turn off crowd-sourced Caller ID.
Why You Should Care Even if You Don’t Use Mr. Number
Android is not as open as we thought it was. We thought that Google’s content policies were aimed at malware and fraud. But no one has accused Mr. Number of deceiving users or doing anything illegal.
For users, it means that your favorite apps could disappear at any time.
For developers and investors, it means that at any time (in our case, two years after launch) Google can tell you to turn off key features of your app, regardless of what users think.
It means that on Android as on iOS, you need permission to innovate.
We could quit Google Play and ask you to download Mr. Number directly from our website. But you cannot install Android apps from the web without changing a setting on your phone and tapping through multiple warning messages that imply off-market apps are suspicious. Going off-market may work for hobbyists and crooks but it’s not a realistic option for a commercial developer.
We hope that Google will realize this and let you the users decide which products have struck the right balance between privacy and utility. Alternatively, Google could stop calling Android an open platform and pre-approve all new apps.
Once again, we’re sorry for the inconvenience and we’ll keep working to bring back crowd-sourced Caller ID.
You might be asking God to give you a financial miracle, or even some things around your relationships and family matters. This is why I’m calling you, because God urged me and spoke to me about praying for you.
Being a prayer partner, being someone that’s standing on the sidelines praying that everyday your needs will be met; if you’re ready to join my prayer closet where I pray over thousand of people and you are the only one missing, I want you to press a zero so I can transfer this call to the prayer closet. And this way, I can have your information so I can begin to start praying for you non-stop.
If you’re really ready, press zero right now because I know your miracle is right around the corner. Your struggle will be over. Press zero now to be transferred to the prayer closet.
DIFFERENT MALE VOICE:
To be removed from this call list, please press “three” now.
failed to provide their name or the name of the person on whose behalf the call was made
did not leave a callback number
making unsolicited calls to mobile phones is prohibited
The TCPA allows individuals to go after violators to pursue civil penalties for breaking the law, up to $500 for each violation. In certain circumstances, the law allows a judge to triple the amount of damages:
A person or entity may, if otherwise permitted by the laws or rules of court of a State, bring in an appropriate court of that State– (A) an action based on a violation of this subsection or the regulations prescribed under this subsection to enjoin such violation, (B) an action to recover for actual monetary loss from such a violation, or to receive $500 in damages for each such violation, whichever is greater, or (C) both such actions.
If the court finds that the defendant willfully or knowingly violated this subsection or the regulations prescribed under this subsection, the court may, in its discretion, increase the amount of the award to an amount equal to not more than 3 times the amount available under subparagraph (B) of this paragraph.
In a followup, we’ll show you how to file a civil complaint in state court so you can pursue damages against individuals/companies you believe have violated the TCPA.
The most effective scams tell us what we want to hear: who wouldn’t want a free exotic vacation or a shiny new smartphone to test and keep? Fraudsters play on our hopes and fears, but let’s be honest — we like getting free stuff, and that makes a con artist’s job much easier.
When scammers use the Internet to obtain personal info, it’s called “phishing,” but because these offers arrive via SMS messages, they’re “smishing” attempts. One of the most persistent smishing scams these days is the Walmart Gift Card Scam: a text message informs you that you’ve won a $1000 gift card from America’s largest retailer. To claim your “prize,” just click a link and enter personal details like a social security number or credit card.
Here’s how frequently the phrase “walmart gift card” appeared in comments posted by Mr. Number members who submitted spam reports between June 2010 and March 21, 2012:
The number of complaints exploded in March 2012, so we know these scammers stepped up their game; Walmart issued a statement earlier this month to let customers know about this racket.
Drilling down deeper into our data, many of the most recent reports we received show that gift card scammers are currently targeting people who live in Northern Virginia, where 10 Walmart locations serve about 2 million people (25% of the state’s population).
Protecting yourself from scams like these is relatively easy if you’ll remember one rule: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
If you’re the target of a smishing attempt:
Don’t text back to follow any of their instructions.
Tell someone you know, especially elderly friends and relatives.
Report scams to your mobile provider and on Mr. Number.
If you’ve already responded to one of these offers, contact your state’s Attorney General’s office or the Federal Trade Commission (1-877-FTC-HELP).
At Mr. Number, we spend a lot of time thinking about privacy. It may be the number one reason you downloaded our app: by screening your calls and texts, we protect your privacy. But we also need to protect the privacy of your contacts and the privacy of other people who call or text you. We’re working on a “bill of rights” to explain this and we’d like to hear what you think.
(1) You have the right to know who is calling you.
No one should be able to call or text you without saying who they are.
To protect your privacy, Mr. Number helps you to identify or block unknown numbers by looking up those numbers in many sources, including the mobile contacts of other users who allow us to do so.
To protect the privacy of those contacts, that’s all we do. You can’t look up a stranger’s name in Mr. Number and find their private phone number.
(2) You have the right to block anyone.
Anyone in the world can make your phone ring. All they need is your number. They don’t have to disclose their own phone number, let alone their name. And once they have your number, you can’t take it back; you can only change it.
Mr. Number lets you block calls and texts from any number, and from people who hide their number. We use your feedback to identify spam calls and text messages and to block those automatically for all users.
(3) You have the right to block Mr. Number.
Unless you’re making commercial calls or sending commercial text messages, if you don’t want us to tell Mr. Number users your name when you call or text them, we won’t.
Our users may decide not to answer your call – many of them automatically block calls from people who block Caller ID – but you control how you appear in Mr. Number.
“Hi… I got a text sent to my Android that spoofed my own number. The call back number was 209-858-3634. How do I add them to my block list?”
I suggested that he add his own number to his Mr. Number blacklist. That way, if he receives another call from someone spoofing his Caller ID using his number, our app will send it directly to voicemail or, better yet — pick up and hang up immediately.
The party who called was allegedly representing a debt-collection agency. That’s a challenging job, but it’s against the law for them to call from a phony number.
Congress passed the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2010 because many telemarketers, debt collectors and others were manipulating Caller ID info to make you more likely to pick up the phone.
Nope, debt collectors can't spoof their Caller ID info.
It is “unlawful for any person within the United States, in connection with any telecommunications service or IP-enabled voice service, to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”
The FCC issued rules that clarify TCIDA in summer 2011; Caller ID spoofing is allowed in limited cases, as long as the deception isn’t intended to cause harm or defraud. Examples:
A sales rep works out of his home two blocks from your house, but he’s permitted to display the Caller ID info and name of his employer several states away.
Residents of a domestic violence shelter show a different phone number/name on outbound calls to preserve their safety.
An OB/GYN who takes a lot of late-night calls is allowed to spoof his office line when calling a patient back late at night.
Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are also excluded, but the FCC “did not find any of these exemptions to be necessary or appropriate” for debt collectors.
If you receive a call from a collection agency using a spoofed number, file a complaint with the FCC. To back up your claim, snap a photo of the spoofed Caller ID.
If the FCC finds that rules were broken, they can levy fines as large as $10,000 for each violation and three times that amount for each day they continue to break the law, up to $1 million!
When I played soccer as a kid, one of my teammates’ dads was a cardiologist with an ever-changing schedule. He came to as many games as he could, but he ducked out many times when his pager (a brick-sized box with a telescopic antenna) started bleeping.
Eventually, he upgraded to a portable not too different from the ones we use now, except that he lugged his around in a bulky attaché case; when a call came in, he’d take it on a full-sized plastic handset attached to a curly cord.
Today, a cardiologist looks just like the other parents at a kids’ soccer game wearing a Bluetooth headpiece, except she probably drives a nicer car.
The down side of this great leap forward in technology: anyone can reach you at any time, at any place. You always have the option of turning your phone off unless you’re making or expect to receive a call, but that’s a luxury. Family, work, friends — you can’t afford to miss an important call when it comes in, especially when everyone knows you’re reachable.
We often plan to unplug, but what does that really mean when you carry the world in your pocket? Even when you take a few days off or go out for a nice evening, anyone who has your phone number is along for the occasion. Telemarketers, debt collectors, your office, the sister you’ve been arguing with all week…
…This is where Mr. Number comes in; we block and deflect so you can focus what’s on important.
Are you getting a flurry of messages from your roommate about the dishes you left in the sink? Block her calls and texts for the rest of the afternoon so you can prepare a presentation and keep your phone free to stay in touch with co-workers. When you’ve finished your work, give your roomie a call and work things out.
Going away for a three-day weekend? Mr. Number can block all calls and texts except the ones from your parents who are watching the kids.
Sick at home with a fever? Let Mr. Number send everyone — except your mom, your doctor and the pharmacy –directly to voicemail until you’re feeling better.
Debt collectors are the largest single group of unwanted callers, making up around a third of unwanted calls to Mr. Number users. Calls range from a reminder to pay your cell phone bill to verbal abuse in the middle of the night about debts owed by the person who had your phone number before you.
A simple reminder from your cell phone company isn’t harassment, and we try not to mark those calls as spam – although some people really, really want us to. Remember to pay your bills on time!
The problem callers are mainly “third-party” debt collectors: companies that purchase debt from thousands of businesses for pennies on the dollar. If they can persuade a fraction of the alleged debtors to pay up in full, they make a profit. And their preferred way of recovering that debt is to track down your cell phone number.
We also recommend joining the Do Not Call registry, as it will lower the number of calls you get from telemarketers. But if a company can claim that you owe them money, remember that the Do Not Call rules don’t apply.
So many people have downloaded Mr. Number to block spam phone calls that we hear about every phone scam in America. One recent example is a timeshare scam mostly centered in Florida (coverage: WESH Orlando & Orlando Sentinel)
In timeshare-rich locations like Florida, telemarketers are calling thousands of owners offering to find buyers in return for a small fee. It sounds like a great deal in this economy, and all they want is a small deposit: $500 to $7,000. But once you pay, you never hear from them again.
Our users have reported several numbers that the scammers used:
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Some victims of the timeshare scam have received calls from unknown numbers promising to get their scammed money back – for a fee. This “rescam” is getting popular as victims repeat their mistake. Here are a few examples:
We are working on improving our spam system to detect scams like this faster, and with your help we’re adding around 1,000 new numbers to our spam list every day. Download Mr. Number for Android or Mr. Number for BlackBerry and add “Suspected Spam” to your blacklist to silence them all.