Phone numbers

Remember when you used to be able to google the number of an unknown caller and that worked? Yeah, that was nice. Those results have been utterly, 100% poisoned by spammers for years now.

It doesn't really matter, though, since though I understand that the new iPhones include real-time voice-chat, I never use it. There are only three numbers I ever accept voice calls from, and one of them's a robot, but sometimes I'm curious.

How is it that the cell companies still think it's a good idea for the protocol to not include the text of the subscriber name? Land-line CID had that, but cells never have. It's weird.

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47 Responses:

  1. Simon C. says:

    Remember when Google used to make at least a token effort to keep spam sites out of their results? That was nice, too.

    • jwz says:

      That's not fair, Google does make a token effort. For what "not even a token effort" looks like, you need to look at Twitter followers and at-spam.

      • Simon C. says:

        Oof. Fair point.

      • Matt Cutts says:

        Hi, I work on webspam over on Google. One of the issues with phone numbers is that if a number doesn't show up anywhere else on the web, a page that does mention that number has a decent chance of being shown if you search for that specific number. With so many pages in our index, it can be difficult to find all the number-laden pages.

        • One of the issues with phone numbers is that if a number doesn't show up anywhere else on the web, a page that does mention that number has a decent chance of being shown if you search for that specific number.

          Unfortunately the problem is that thousands of phone number spammers have ensured that literally every phone number that could possibly exist has been mentioned eleventy billion times. At least the sequential phone number spam pages are bloody easy to find.

    • gryazi says:

      Google just lets the first page fill with spam so you'll have to click through to the second for first-page results. Twice the ad impressions that way.

      There's probably a complex annoyance algorithm involved.

  2. Thomas says:

    In the UK I've never seen or heard of caller-ID that provides the name of the caller, on either fixed lines or mobile phones. I'm not sure the UK signalling systems even support such a thing.

    There's some better news for mobile phones: in SIP (which runs most VoIP networks that aren't Skype and is what LTE-based networks will end up using for signalling), the caller and callee details are provided by a From and To header with a similar format to that used in emails. So it's there in that protocol and the next generation of mobile phones will likely display it if present.

    • jwz says:

      In the US, land-line caller ID was a 300 baud squirt of 64-ish bytes that came in between the voltage-pulse of the first and second ring that included the number and all-caps caller name. Mobile calls, being fully digital now and half-digital before, have room for all the metadata they could ever want but have always chosen not to include it for some reason.

      • Ronald Pottol says:

        And CDROMs have 650+MB of data space on them, but no room for album/track information.

        Perhaps the same people did the implementations?

        • gryazi says:

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          Support is there (often in car players) but spotty. At the time the CD format was originally developed enough display to actually show the names would have been quite the luxury - and don't forget that the original players really had more in common with a phonograph than the heavily microcontrolled world we're used to today. (Dig how tracking is implemented, say.)

          • Ronald Pottol says:

            Well, sure, but one would hope that they would have thought that at some point in the foreseeable future, that it would be a reasonable thing to have, after all, all aspects of computing had been getting steadily cheaper. I'm well aware that they were developed in the mid 1970s, and just how much that stuff cost (I remember a friends dad adding a 4th 16k board to their S100 bus cp/m system, bringing it to 64K, he was the first person I knew to hand in a paper in school written and printed on a computer (silvery thermal paper, and his dad wrote a serial driver so they could use it).

            I'm just saying they should have had a little foresight, not that they should have avoided everything our host here has ranted about, after all, email was just being invented.

            • Lun Esex says:

              The CD format was developed by companies who had so far only made analogue stereo and TV gear, not computer companies. (Note that LaserDiscs, as the precursor to CDs, actually had a direct analogue signal encoded in a single 42 mile long spiral track on them.) In the 1970's I doubt many people would have accused them of having much foresight when it came to future applications in the brave new world of "high technology." Anyone even suggesting to them that all audio and video gear would eventually have microchips in them would probably get a response like "Why would anyone want that?"

              Not that many computer companies of the time had much foresight, either, since almost every single one of them went out of business, or was acquired (mostly by other companies that would later also go out of business), or stopped making computers.

          • Don says:

            I had a friend who loved to populate the CD text with all sorts of insulting and obnoxious stuff, knowing that almost nobody had them. So if someone asked her to make them a CD of album XYZ she'd put something about that person's mother in the CD text, all on the assumption that maybe someday they'd replace their car stereo with one that had the support and would get a big surprise.

    • Roger says:

      I'm a Brit living in the US and the approach is very different. In the US the legacy phone companies (pretty much AT&T these days) actually charge extra to receive caller id, usually around $6 per month. It can show the name associated with the phone number providing it is the same (local) carrier. They also charge you a similar amount if you want to be excluded from the phone book and caller id! Just to make things even more complicated you end up with a local carrier (calls within ~15 miles), a local toll carrier (calls within ~100 miles) and "long distance" (remaining distance). You can end up with a separate carrier for each! It is no wonder so many people hate AT&T and are abandoning landlines en masse.

      When caller id was introduced in the UK, BT had the novel notion that not charging extra for it would mean everyone would use it and it would actually result in more calls. The people I know here do no pay for caller id on their landlines, and have their information set to be withheld when they make calls. (If they can't see you why should you see them.)

      Cell phone carriers and "modern" phone companies include caller id.

      • Thomas says:

        BT actually charges for caller ID these days... unless you order "BT Privacy at Home" which is free and consists of caller ID plus registration with the TPS (the UK's anti-telemarketer list). Being ex-directory is still free, as is witholding your number.

      • Glenn says:

        Back when I actually used land lines, if someone had caller-ID blocked, I didn't pick up. If you don't want me to know who you are, then I don't want to talk to you.

        • hattifattener says:

          That was such a universal response that phonespammers hardly ever block CLID any more— instead they'll arrange for either "no data available" or a city name, presumably by going through an intentionally broken VoIP relay or something like that. If I see an actual blocked-CLID call on my land line these days I can be nearly certain that it's an actual nonspammer human.

          Though I did get a call a while back for which the CLID read "PHONE SCAM". I kinda wish I'd been there to pick that one up.

        • Juan Quintela says:

          I tried that one, but here all shipping companies used to call with caller-ID blocked. As I work from home, and used to get several packages, I had to get all calls :-(

      • Paul says:

        In the US the reason caller ID costs money is half greed, and half because it actually costs money.

        Caller ID is a checkbox in the switch. At least, on the one I work on (Taqua T7000) it literally is a checkbox. Click it, then hit the green checkbox to submit pending changes, and voila, your end user has caller ID. In the Siemens EWSD it's an arcane TL-1 command, and probably likewise in the 5ESS and DMS-100, I've never been in those.

        It used to be justified to cost money because it actually required specialized equipment in the mechanical switches (GTD 4, 1ESS and 1AESS). Since then though, it's just cash in the pocket of the phone company.

        Caller ID with Name, however, actually does cost the carrier money. Much like everything else in the United States, we have a complicated system based on fractional cents and arbitrage to compensate each other for our caller ID with name database data. Caller ID with name data costs typically between 4/10ths of a cent per call, to 9/10ths of a cent per call, depending on the originating carrier's tariffed database cost. This database is a distributed database, with the actual databases run by carriers or SS7 providers and manual programming of areacode and exchanges into STPs causes systems to route queries to the right databases. For ported numbers, the pointer is stored in the LNP database so you can do a LNP query on an inbound call, find out the CNAM/LIDB database point code, and query that to find out what the actual name is.

        Does it need to be this way? Absolutely not. We could come to our senses and exchange this data without compensation to each other, but why do that when we can try to trick each other into fractional cent arbitrage scams and/or finding ways to deliberately leverage our market positions to profit off end user's names?

        What Canada does is sane. There's a field in the SS7 IAM called "Generic Name" and if you fill that in, it is presented as Caller ID with Name data. If you don't, they get nothing. I have no idea if Canadian carriers do the same sort of price gouging that US carriers do (my employer does not charge extra for caller ID unless you have the absolute bargain basement plan where we're basically making nothing except for all the a-la-carte activity you perform (per call/per minute billing,etc) but I do understand many carriers still charge for caller ID these days) but they certainly do not need to do so there.

        • Paul says:

          (Wait, I have access to the caller ID database for my carrier? Yes, I've played with it, and you can put all manner of absurdity in there if you want. My Caller ID with name data has at times been "<3" or "8====D" - It's unstructured ASCII text)

        • Paul, I swear when I read your comments on this blog post by JWZ, I thought to myself, "That sounds like the guy who runs". Then when I clicked on your name, I realized it _does_ sound familiar. We've only had a couple occasions to chat in the past (when I was starting a CLEC in FL) but thanks for everything you've done with –– that site is a massive help!


  3. pavel_lishin says:

    The only reason I pick up unknown phone numbers - and ask my friends to do the same - is because the only thing that sucks more than being arrested is your friends not picking up your calls from jail because they do not recognize the number.

  4. Zygo says:

    Huh? I've had caller name on my mobile phone for years. Granted, since the information can be controlled or disabled by the caller it is rarely useful, but the mechanism for delivering and presenting it is there.

    • alpo says:

      carrier? are you sure it's not that you just have those numbers in your address book already?

      • MattyJ says:

        I'm on MetroPCS and I *occasionally* get a call from an 800 number, one that is definitely not in my phonebook, that displays the company name. I'd say this happens maybe 10% of the time. I'm not sure if it's something the company on the other end has to choose to send or what, but it is out there and happens sometimes.

        • Paul says:

          The official caller ID with name database in the united states doesn't work with tollfree numbers. There is no CNAM pointcode stored in the 800 SMS, and the data populated in the end user name field of the 800 SMS isn't used by anything useful.

          No idea what they're using, but it's not the real live database. It could be one of the augmented ones powered by TargusInfo. TargusInfo isn't very accurate but gets the job done for cheap, if you don't care much about accuracy.

          • MattyJ says:

            Turns out you are 100% correct. According to various sites, MetroPCS started offering caller ID with TargusInfo as the provider in 2008. I believe it was an add-on at the time but seems to be built-in to the 4G LTE plan I have.

            More often than not the calls I get say '800 Service' but once in a while one sneaks through with an actual company name.

    • jwz says:

      I think you're confusing "the carrier provides you with the caller's name" with "your phone looks up the caller's number in your personal address book".

      • I'm pretty sure that when the source of a call is a landline for which CID data exists, I *used* to see it on the phone back when my carrier was AT&T Wireless, and maybe even still after Cingular bought them, but I'm pretty sure that I do not now that AT&T bought Cingular. (So I've certainly never seen it on a "smart" phone.)

        I believe that you are right: no sort of CID information ever appears on mobile-to-mobile calls, nor has it ever. I agree that is stupid. As a prior poster pointed out, LTE+SIP could fix this, but since the current lack isn't caused by a technical restriction...

      • Zygo says:

        I usually copy data from my call history to my address book, so no, it's not in my address book to start with. It's a Blackberry on Rogers in Canada.

          • Oh, except that latter thing's a scam (it's not $2... it's $2/month, and apparently it fails most of the time). Never mind.

          • Zygo says:

            I haven't bothered trying to psychoanalyze the firmware on the phones, so I don't know if it's just a clever hack on the phone side or a standard network feature. Blackberries have their own service extensions on the carrier side so it might only work for them.

            It worked four years ago on used handsets that were two years older than that, and it also worked last week when called my phone for the first time. It doesn't seem to matter what carrier the caller is on, or if they're on a land line. Individual callers either get the full name and number presentation every time they call, or it never happens no matter how many times they call. I had assumed it depended on whether they opted to make their subscriber information public or not.

            There is a standard mobile AT command for caller ID presentation, but the only standardized value for the parameter is a numeric string.

            • Zygo says:

              Amendment: apparently there are a few dozen standardized values for AT+CLIP data now, many of which are listed in the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile (which uses AT commands for signalling, and involves headsets interrogating phones for their delicious phone book information). All of the data types supported seem to be numeric strings, with different implied international prefixes or something. Sigh.

            • Yeah, it looks like this is a carrier decision on whether to retrieve and pass the data. ROGERS in CA and T-Mobile in the US decided to do so, few other NA carriers did (but since ROGERS basically owns the market up there...)

  5. s/is (a lans)/was \1/ ; s/(data exist)s/\1ed/

  6. Scott says:

    "Remember when you used to be able to google the number of an unknown caller and that worked?"

    It still "works" for me in that I can tell pretty easily tell whether it is a telemarketer calling. Which is usually all I want to know.

    • alpo says: is also somewhat useful for making that distinction.

    • MattyJ says:

      Back in the day there was a myriad of reverse lookup websites. I think someone got wise that this was a popular thing and bought exclusive rights to the data from carriers. You can still find these sites out there but they all charge money. And if you look closely, 99% of them refer back to US Search. They seem to have cornered the market.

      A cursory search of the inter-global-hyper-net turns up references to phone companies claiming copyright on the information they publish, which is perhaps code for 'we are going to sell this publicly available information and not give it away for free any more...' [unless it's on paper.]

      • Zzedar says:

        There are still plenty of free reverse lookup sites; try, for example.

        • MattyJ says:

          Any personal phone number I put in there is not found, but Intelius would be more than happy to do a real search for me for 99 cents, providing I sign up for their trial service, which inevitably will ask me for a credit card number so they can charge me a monthly fee for a while after I forget to cancel it.

  7. In Canada, we get names with caller ID both from land lines and [some] mobile phones. I think this happened about 3-4 years ago.

  8. Tmo sells it on their site...

    ...I thought it'd always been around, but just with another $4 on top of all the other services they nickle-and-dime you to death for. I'm reasonably sure I've seen someone who's paid for it have their cell phone ring with a transmitted ID as such - and I'm sure some telecom geek readers can confirm that the field still exists in switched phone-calls.... (Of course UNKNOWN is still a likely default for spammers.)

  9. Joe says:

    What robot?

  10. Owen says:

    You need the NumberGuru app...

  11. Don says:

    I keep dealing with the hassle of jailbreaking pretty much exclusively so I can use iBlacklist. I don't know why Apple's fu-carrier attitude seems to falter when it comes to allowing us to just reject all unknown/blocked callers, but it's a must-have for me. Once I added in a few more numbers to the blacklist (#1 with a bullet: the Red Cross, who seem to think that if I ignored them M-Th when they called then I'll be delighted to hear from them on Friday) and told the app to dump them straight to voicemail I found my quality of life improved greatly.