Is Your Private Life Private? Not When Phone Technology Muddles Matters

The National Psychologist

January/February 1997

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.


In the November/December issue of The National Psychologist I discussed the lack of privacy when transacting business via telephone, fax, cellular phone and e-mail. Each of these communication modalities is susceptible to interception and each needs to be used judiciously when talking with or about clients. This column goes one step further and explains how, with today's technology, your private life may not truly be private anymore.

Clinicians know they must clearly separate their professional from their private lives. Ethical guidelines concerning dual relationships demand that clients should only contact you through your office telephone and never at home. Although once upon a time return calls from home were acceptable because it was virtually impossible to uncover someone's unlisted number, times have changed and so have the rules.

Today, the telephone company has made two options available. But both are problematic. The first is Call Return. For a monthly fee, Call Return allows a person to dial *69 and the phone number of the last call received will be dialed. This means if you call a client from home who has Call Return, the client can, in turn, call your home phone. If you are like many people and you screen your telephone calls through your answer machine, the client may be greeted by the following: "You have reached the Rosen home at 555-555-5555. We are not available at this time, but if you leave your name and phone number, we'll get back to you." Now the client has your phone number. How can you protect yourself against clients gaining your home phone number through Call Return? That's simple -- don't announce your telephone number on your message. Can you guard against clients using Call Return? No, you cannot. Fortunately, Call Return can only be used on the last call received, so once the person answers another telephone call, your number disappears.

Unfortunately, the client has another option to get your phone number -- Caller ID. Now legal in nearly every state, Caller ID allows anyone to purchase a special box that will, for a monthly fee, display the phone number of each incoming telephone call. So, when you return that client call from home your client can get your telephone number. By the way, Caller ID even displays your number if it is unlisted. So, how do you protect your privacy? You have two options. First, you can contact your telephone company and request that your phone number never be transmitted to a Caller ID box. This is free and fairly easy to do. Or, if you don't want to block the number completely, you can block any single telephone call from Caller ID by first pressing *67 before dialing a number. With either option the Caller ID box at the other end will display the word "unavailable" in place of your number.

Once you have blocked Caller ID and changed your home answer machine message, your privacy is secure, right? Not exactly. With a telephone, a modem or a CD-ROM a resourceful person can now find your home address, telephone number , e-mail address and more. With a telephone alone, a person can call information and locate your telephone number. With a kindly information operator your address is available, too. The solution is an unlisted phone number.

But, now, with a modem and Internet access a person can find the same information on any of three free services. On the World Wide Web, contact,, or and you will be connected to a nationwide directory that includes telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and street addresses. Just type the person's name (or even part of the name) and you will see a list of people all over the country with that name (or combination of letters in their name). Specify a state or a city and you will reduce this list. Find the name and click on it and you will see a bevy of personal information. Even unlisted phone numbers show up on some of these services.

I tried looking up my own information on each of these services and found that my e-mail address was listed on WhoWhere and nothing was listed on Four11. On Switchboard, I found my e-mail address and my telephone number, but a wrong address. All of these services are in their infancy, but their databases of personal information are growing daily.

Suppose you don't have a computer. Can you still find someone's telephone number and personal information? Sure, it is easy. In Summer 1996, Lexis-Nexis a Dayton, Ohio company, began to provide a service called P-Trak which includes information on nearly everyone in the United States including current and previous addresses, telephone number, maiden name, birth date and more. For a fee of $85-$100 you can request this personal information on anyone in the P-Trak database. Are you in the database? Probably. Luckily, it is easy to remove your information from P-Trak by sending a letter to P-Trak, P.O. Box 933, Dayton, OH 45301 a fax to 800-732-7672 or an e-mail to that includes you full name and address. Lexis-Nexis will inform you when you have been deleted from P-Trak.

One final note about privacy. In any earlier column (May/June 1995), I discussed Usenet discussion groups. In these groups people type messages on their computer and then post them on a gadget akin to an electronic cork board for anyone in the world to read. If you have ever participated in a Usenet discussion group your comments and e-mail address are available to anyone with a modem. Send an e-mail message to "" (without the quotation marks) and include a one line message that says: send usenet-addresses/Larry Rosen (replace my name by the person whose messages you want to find). Soon you will have a list of all messages posted by this person. This means that any off-handed comment made on a Usenet discussion group is open to public scrutiny. Be careful what you say. It may come back to haunt you.

Communication technology has brought us a wealth of opportunities in the past few years, both new ways to "connect" and countless perils to our privacy. The lesson from this column and the one in the last issue is that you do have options. There are still ways to protect yourself and keep your private life private.

In a future issue I will be comparing several voice recognition systems that allow people to talk to the computer and have the computer type their words. These hands-free systems have just recently taken great leaps in their ability to recognize speech and may provide a great resource for the busy practitioner.


Copyright, 1995, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.