Three hoax phone calls

It seems to me that the prominence of hoax phone calls has been increasing lately, though maybe it's just a fluke.

And they raise the question: how can you tell whether a given call is authentic? Which raises all sorts of related web-of-trust and authentication issues, which resonate with issues in the computer industry as well.

But I'm not gonna go into all that; just noting three calls that caught my attention recently:

  • A pair of Montreal comedians prank-called Sarah Palin in early November, pretending to be French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and broadcast the call live on the radio. (There's an ABC News article that gives a little more info on how the callers reached Palin.)
  • About a week ago, during the terror attacks in Mumbai, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari received a call allegedly from the Indian foreign minister that "prompted Islamabad to put its air force on high alert before concluding the call was a hoax." That WSJ article adds: "Pakistan officials provided few details of the call or how they discovered it was a hoax, but said they believed it was real because it showed up on their phones as coming from a number at India's foreign ministry."
  • A few days ago, Florida Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen received a call claiming to be from Barack Obama. She hung up on the caller, believing it to be a hoax. She then received another call from someone claiming to be Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel; she hung up on him too. It wasn't until she got a call from Rep. Howard Berman, who she apparently knows personally, that she learned that the first two calls had been real. (Another article I saw said that she had Berman tell her an inside joke about a colleague of theirs to prove it was really him.)

I think what all this adds up to is that phone pranking is relatively easy and becoming more widespread; that it can potentially have major real-world consequences; that it can be hard to recognize; and that authentication ends up requiring contact with people you know and trust.

From a different angle, I think these incidents suggest that we all need to be careful about believing that unknown callers are who they say they are--but also that sometimes they really are.

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