JEFFERSON CITY — The caller ID displayed "ST LUKES EAST," making it appear as though someone at St. Luke's hospital in Lee's Summit was dialing the line.
But when people picked up the phone, a recorded voice declared: "This is an urgent alert," then alleged that a Democratic state House candidate had taken campaign donations from a representative of the hard-core pornography industry. The voice said the call was paid for by the House Republican Campaign Committee.
In the final days before the Nov. 2 election, numerous people received calls with similar bait-and-switch identification displays. The calls targeting Democrat Judy Wright in northwest Missouri typically displayed some branch of St. Luke's Health System.
In northeast Missouri, the calls describing Democrat Rep. Rebecca McClanahan as an ally of President Barack Obama displayed the phone number for the Adair County Ambulance District.
Neither the ambulance district nor the hospital actually made the calls, which have been resoundingly denounced without anyone specifically taking responsibility.
The capability of "spoofing" caller identification numbers has existed for some time and, in fact, is marketed by several entities over the Internet. It's been used to mask prank phone calls and, more maliciously, to obscure the identity of phoned threats and harassment.
Now it apparently is being used in politics to trick people into answering phone calls they might otherwise have screened and ignored. Understandably, some people are not pleased.
The Adair County Ambulance District says it was inundated with phone calls from people complaining about the apparent political calls by the ambulance service.
Four days before the election, St. Luke's Health System went to court and obtained a temporary restraining order against Display Stuff LLC, doing business as Survey Saint Louis LLC, which it alleged was the source of the automated calls displaying fake caller IDs. That order expired after the election, and the lawsuit is being dismissed after Survey Saint Louis agreed to pay the attorneys' fees for St. Luke's, said the health center's attorney, Bernard Rhodes.
Yet no one has specifically claimed responsibility for the misleading caller identifications.
"We have never asked anyone to do that; we have never advocated for anyone to do that, and we think that is not a correct tactic," said House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, the chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee.
The HRCC paid Survey Saint Louis to make political robocalls.
Tom Smith, the owner of Survey Saint Louis and a similar company called Survey Missouri, stressed that the lawsuit against his firm was being dismissed. Smith said he was not aware of the fake caller IDs until reading about them in the media.
"The phone calls we send out of our office show up as Survey Missouri or with the phone number" from the line used in the call, said Smith, a Republican campaign operative who also is employed by the state as an aide to House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin.
Some prominent Republican political consultants decried the caller ID spoofing.
"I can't imagine going to a candidate and saying, 'Hey, my advice to you is to make this robocall, and we'll put a local hospital as the contact,'" said Republican consultant Jeff Roe, whose client Glen Klippenstein defeated Wright in the northwest Missouri House race. "I can't image that would be feasible. In my consideration, that would be pretty rogue. It's over the top."
The U.S. House and Senate earlier this year each passed different versions of the "Truth in Caller ID Act," which would have outlawed the use of misleading caller identifications with the intent to deceive, defraud or harm people. But the bills have yet to make it President Barack Obama.
Missouri House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, filed legislation this year that would have made it a state felony — punishable by up to four years in prison — to insert false information on a caller ID with the intent to defraud. But the bill never even got a committee hearing.
LeVota won't be in the House in 2011 because he was prohibited by term limits from seeking re-election. But he plans to run for the state Senate in 2012.
He acknowledged the anti-spoofing legislation might be difficult to enforce if it were only a Missouri law, because "you could hire someone in the state of Kansas calling into Missouri and it would have no authority of them." Yet the legislature needs to provide some guidance on political robocalls, he said.
Tilley said a prison term might be excessive for faking a caller ID, but he said it's worth discussing whether to ban the practice when the legislature reconvenes in 2011.
"I don't know what the penalty should be, but if it's intentionally done, it's not acceptable," Tilley said.