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Citing threats, entrepreneur to quit caller ID venture

After receiving harassing messages, the founder of a service that fools caller ID systems decides to sell the business.

It may be known as caller ID spoofing, but it is evidently no laughing matter.

Three days after the start-up company Star38 began offering a service that fools caller ID systems, the founder, Jason Jepson, has decided to sell the business. Jepson said he had received harassing e-mail and phone messages and even a death threat taped to his front door--all he said from people opposed to his publicizing a commercial version of technology that until now has been mainly used by software programmers and the computer hackers' underground.

For a fee, customers using the Star38.com Web site would be able to alter the number that would appear on the caller ID screen of the recipient's phone. The technique could mask the identity of a bill collector, for example, or enable a private investigator to fool someone into answering the phone on the false belief that a friend or relative was ringing.

Jepson said Friday that he did not yet have any paying customers for the service. But he said he had received hundreds of messages from potential customers--as well as from people concerned that his product would invade their privacy. He also said he had received inquiries from five investors who were interested in investing in or buying his company.

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"It generated a lot more interest than I ever thought it would," said Jepson, who noted he had spent only $3,000 to develop his service with the company's five other employees. But he said the threats had persuaded him to get out of the caller ID spoofing business.

"I was harassed," he said. "It's too much."

Jepson, an entrepreneur who lives in a gated community in Orange County, said he had hired a private investigator familiar with hackers, both to protect himself and his family and to try to determine the source of the threats.

He said that since he did not know specifically who was threatening him, he thought it would be fruitless to seek help from the police. "I don't want to go to the cops, who might not know what a hacker is," he said.

The reaction against Star38 is the type of friction that can arise between for-profit software companies and hackers who resent the commercialization of technology they believe should remain free.

"In most countercultures, there is an aspect of selling out," said Caleb Sima, the co-founder of Spi Dynamics, an Atlanta-based online security company. "People who make money off technology are deemed to have sold out. Anyone who has a unique idea and is making money is going to get badgered."

While network security consultants and some other technology professionals are known to have a cottage industry involving the use of caller ID spoofing, Jepson said the nature of the threats he had received made him conclude they had come from so-called phishers--people who use caller ID spoofing and online techniques to trick people into handing over confidential information.

The people who threatened him, he said, had already tapped his phone calls and had obtained details about how much money he last deposited into his checking account. "Some people," he said, "are pretty fired up about this."

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