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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Spoofing Upheld, If Done for the Right Reasons

(CN) - Mississippi cannot outlaw spoofing services that do not try to cause harm by misrepresenting a phone caller's number to the recipient, the 5th Circuit ruled.

In 2010 Mississippi enacted the Caller ID Anti-Spoofing Act (ASA) which makes it illegal for a person to enter false information into a phone caller ID system with the intent to deceive, defraud or mislead the recipient. The law also makes it illegal to knowingly place a call after false info has been entered into the phone caller ID system with intent to deceive, defraud or mislead the recipient.

Violations of the law constitute a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and imprisonment.

That same year, Congress amended the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 with the Truth in Caller ID Act.

This made it illegal for any person in the United States to cause a caller ID service to knowingly send inaccurate caller ID info with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.

Teltech Systems Inc. of New Jersey and Michigan-based Wonderland Rentals Inc. filed a federal lawsuit to challenge Mississippi's anti-spoofing law.

Teltech Systems sells the SpoofCard, a long-distance calling card that gives users the ability to manipulate the caller ID shown to the called party.

Wonderland Rentals relies on spoofing for a mystery shopping program. Retailers can hire Wonderland to have its workers pose as customers, call their customer-service departments and assess their services.

In their complaint, Teltech and Wonderland Rentals said federal law pre-empted Mississippi's law, and that the statute violated the commerce clause and the First Amendment.

A federal judge ultimately found that Mississippi's law violated the commerce clause because it regulated commerce outside the state. The court rejected federal pre-emption claims and it declined to rule on the First Amendment issue.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit affirmed Monday, but on a different basis.

The 12-page ruling focuses on the distinction between nonharmful and harmful spoofing.

In outlawing harmful spoofing, the federal statute singles out calls made with "intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value."

Mississippi goes a step further, however, by banning nonharmful spoofing done "with the intent to deceive ... or mislead the recipient of the call."

The Atlanta-based court found that Congress intended to protect nonharmful spoofing, pointing to a U.S. Senate report wherein "Senator Rockefeller noted spoofing's legitimate importance for domestic-violence victims, or for consumers who wish to provide a temporary call-back number that differs from their actual telephone number. ... Accordingly, the federal effort to curtail spoofing focused on persons intending to cause harm through fraud or criminal mischief."

Writing for the panel, Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale said: "There is an inherent federal objective in TCIA to protect non-harmful spoofing. ASA's proscription of nonharmful spoofing - spoofing done without 'intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value' - frustrates this federal objective and is, therefore, conflict-preempted."

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