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If you are like many health care professionals offering services during the COVID-19 emergency, you may have already violated your own personal telephone privacy. In the rush to help those in need, you may have neglected to protect your own personal telephone privacy by allowing your personal telephone number to be visible when calling parties who could misuse your personal telephone information. You may not have known that masking or blocking your number is not only possible but easy to arrange. With the directions below, you can remedy that situation today.
On the other hand, you may be one of a growing number of professionals who use the same telephone number to deliver both your professional and personal phone messages, including text messages. Assuming that you use a secured HIPAA-compliant text messaging service, you have probably already worked out your systems for keeping you and your family safe from those who may wish to harm you by violating your personal telephone privacy.
After receiving a number of questions from our Telehealth.org community about this issue, we’ve decided to publish a few suggestions for you to consider.
Why Worry about Protecting Your Personal Telephone Privacy?
A niggling voice in your head may be telling you that you may have relaxed your personal boundaries a bit too much with some clients or patients. That voice may be the voice of reason when using many forms of technology, including your basic telephone. With the many new features available with even simple technology like desk or cell phones, the safe use of technology is not an intuitive process. That process typically involves two steps: 1) learning about the repercussions of using one strategy versus another for a particular device, such as a phone and b) implementing steps to comply with safety protocols. In this article, we offer you both steps to help you in protecting your personal telephone privacy.
Protecting Your Personal Telephone Privacy as a Healthcare Professional
Healthcare professionals are legally required to protect the privacy of those they serve. While it isn’t frequently discussed in education or in general healthcare professional training, issues around protecting oneself deserve equal attention. Harm to clinicians related to personal telephone privacy may range from boundary violations to outright stalking.
On January 2, 2018, the Cambridge University Press published an online version of an article entitled, “Stalking of mental health professionals: an underrecognized problem,” wherein the authors, Ronan McIvor and Edward Petch wrote this summary:
Doctors and mental healthcare professionals are at greater risk of being stalked than the general population, particularly by their patients. Despite causing significant psychological distress, stalking remains underrecognised and poorly managed. Healthcare organisations should ensure appropriate policies are in place to aid awareness and minimise risk, including the provision of formal educational programmes.
Why consider protecting your personal telephone privacy?
Traditionally, the primary purpose of protecting your personal telephone privacy as a healthcare practitioner has been to avoid entanglements created by clients or patients who struggle with respecting other people’s boundaries. If you serve a population that could seek to harm you, knowing the details of how protecting your personal telephone privacy is even more important. If you use a single phone for both personal and professional affairs, you hopefully have already worked out a system whereby you only answer your office calls during business hours, have already identified your friends and family by properly pairing their numbers with their names on your phone so as to be able to see them calling you. You probably screen calls during off-hours, and when you choose to respond, you do so with a professional greeting, such as “Good Morning, this is …..” as opposed to a perhaps more facetious, “Yeah, what now?”
Beyond protecting your personal telephone privacy and phone number from the peering eyes of the people you serve as a healthcare provider, you may want to hide your telephone number to avoid getting bombarded with phone attempts at getting you to disclose yet more personal information, buying products that will never arrive, getting your credit card number, social security number or worse. More specifically, scammers and other criminals buy and sell lists of telephone information. Lists of telephone numbers belonging to professionals are quite valuable on the black market, where they can be purchased by identity thieves and compiled with other data bits accumulated from your purchases at the grocery store, the gas station, and other places you shop, both in-person and online.
Once criminals have your phone number, they can call you while masking their own numbers. For example, scammers and other criminals may be located off-shore, but using a revolving set of phone numbers that identify them as being from a large city in your country. The same party then can call you as often as they wish. These calls can range from harassing to menacing if they decide they do not like you. Scammers and other criminals typically prey on your misguided impulse to questions that seem to be related to services that you need. Many such scams are currently being perpetrated in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The US Federal Trade Commission has created a webpage to alert consumers of both text messaging and robocall scams: COVID-19 Consumer Warnings and Safety Tips
Whomever they are, wherever they are located, such scammers are often offshore, and completely out of the reach of local law enforcement. The best prevention then is to control access to your personal telephone information and phone number(s).
Why is protecting your personal telephone privacy important now after using your personal phone to deliver COVID-treatment?
Hiding your number is only helpful for preventing someone from seeing/capturing our personal phone number. If you are like many other professionals who have been using a personal telephone number to connect with clients or patients during COVID, you may already have shared your number with everyone on your caseload, and perhaps a few new clients and patients as well. Your risk assumed is directly proportional to the type of people you serve.
If you’ve already been making professional calls with your personal phone, but now are questioning that decision, you may still want to start blocking your number to mitigate potential damage. The recipients of your calls may not have saved your number by writing it down. They may not know how to save your number as a “New Contact” in their own smartphone. Again, if the population you serve is not a threat to you, this may all be irrelevant to you. However, if you are unsure, it wouldn’t hurt to start blocking your number now.
Types of Telephone Privacy Protection
If you haven’t yet done so, you may want to register your numbers on the national Do Not Call list at no cost by calling 1-888-382-1222 (voice) or 1-866-290-4236 (TTY). Note that you must call from the phone number you wish to register. You can also register at add your personal wireless phone number to the national Do-Not-Call list at this website: donotcall.gov. Once there, you can easily submit up to three numbers at a time to see if they have been previously registered. If they haven’t, you can register them online. This process can take 3-4 minutes at most.
Once that is done, you can work with the settings on your own phone on a call-by-call basis, or by changing a single setting in your telephone to block all outgoing calls. We will next discuss each in turn.
The Universal Masking Code. To assist you with protecting your personal telephone privacy, cellphone and other carriers provide a service that enables you to hide your phone number when making outgoing calls. In North America, service providers have a universal code used to hide telephone numbers. The first involves
- The universal code that can hide your number for the duration of one call is ‘*67’.
- You should keep in mind that this code only hides your number for a single call to a specific receiver.
- It will not hide your number the next time that you call this same party.
- To implement, dial the digits ‘*67’ before the phone number that you wish to reach and your number will be hidden from the receiver.
- They will only see your identity as ‘withheld’ or ‘blocked’.
- However — not all providers support this “universal code.” (this code then, is not as “universal as one may want or need.) While many carriers use the universal code, some do not — such as AT&T.
- For AT&T, the masking code #31# is used, but it doesn’t work in all areas or all devices. (Do you believe this??)
- The code *67 can also be used for AT&T.
- Clearly, the best way to determine that is to experiment beforehand with a friend or family member.
Caller ID Blocking. For perpetual concealment, opt for Caller ID Blocking. This option toggles the hiding feature on and off on your phone and/or on your carrier. Again, this option is programmed differently on different phones as well as through different providers. Below are a few widely used service providers and user interfaces that use Caller ID Blocking.
There are two types of cell phone operating systems, Android and iPhones. When using Android phones, the mechanics are slightly different than that of iPhone. If your Android phone is provided by Verizon or Sprint, you will have to follow the guidelines provided by those service providers. In most cases, service providers have their own apps to make it easy for you to change any of the settings associated with their services. Verizon has ‘My Verizon’.
These apps can let you check on your details and make use of certain utilities. Among these utilities is the caller ID blocking option. Look for a feature by that name after logging into the app offered by your respective service provider. If you don’t have the app, go to the App Store for your operating system and type the name of your mobile service carrier. Download the app, log in, find the ID blocking option and turn it on.
An alternative is to look for Ian’s inbuilt option for caller ID blocking within the settings of your phone. This can be accessed via the system settings. To do this, follow these general steps:
- Open your telephone’s system settings. You can also search for call settings if your phone has the feature.
- After opening system settings, go to Device.
- Go to Call Settings
- Turn on Block Caller ID
Please note that this procedure will block all of your outgoing calls. It will stop your telephone information from showing up until you choose to turn the feature off.
For iPhone users, the mechanics are essentially the same, in that, for temporary blocking you can use the first code discussed above. For complete blocking, you have the option of using your telephone service carrier’s app or changing system settings directly in your mobile phone. To do so, follow these steps once you find your system settings:
- Open the system settings
- Go to the option that reads ‘Show my Caller ID’
- Toggle the switch and you are good to go
The blocking feature will remain in effect until you choose to turn it off. (If you need a head rub at this point, you are not alone.)
As with everything technology-related, think through your decisions. Ask questions, and go to the right source for answers. If you haven’t yet begun your telehealth training, you may want to consider how quickly the world has changed, and how you plan to deal with technology in the months and years ahead. Professional training is available through the Telebehavioral Health Institute.
As always, your comments are invited. If you have questions or have answers regarding protecting your personal telephone privacy, please type them below to share with the Telehealth.org community.
McIVOR, R. J., & Petch, E. (2006). Stalking of mental health professionals: An underrecognized problem. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 188(5), 403-404.
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