For sale: Your privacy


Published: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 10:19 p.m.
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Robert Douglas, a former private investigator, said phone calling records have been abused numerous times.

The Associated Press
Phone companies and federal lawmakers are demanding it be halted. The Federal Communications Commission is launching an investigation. The business of buying and selling private phone calling records is suddenly under considerable scrutiny.
The Internet, it turns out, has taken something old - a tool for monitoring cheating spouses or conniving business associates - and made it new again.
Last week, at least 40 Web sites were offering cell phone numbers, unlisted numbers and calling records. For $110 or so, they'd sell you a month's worth of cell phone calling records for any number, no questions asked.
Such records have been bought and sold for decades, prized by private investigators, lawyers and people in less legitimate professions.
Case in point: In 1998, Los Angeles' police department had a serious security problem. Suspected mobsters obtained home phone numbers and addresses of detectives. In an apparent attempt at intimidation, one mobster showed up at a police officer's home while he was at work, gave his name to the officer's wife and walked away.
The LAPD eventually determined that the officers' personal data came from a Denver firm, Touch Tone Information Inc., that used a technique known as "pretexting." Touch Tone workers would call up phone companies and records holders pretending to be regulators, customers or employees and get them to divulge account information.
The case stirred outrage. The Federal Trade Commission forced Touch Tone out of business and its owner, James Rapp, spent a few months in jail. Robert Pitofsky, chairman of the FTC at the time, said: "This case should send a strong message to information brokers that the FTC will pursue firms that use false pretenses to profit at the expense of consumers' privacy."
Six years later, "pretexting" is again in the spotlight. According to reports this month, Chicago's police department has warned its officers that their cell phone records are available online. Illinois' attorney general subsequently subpoenaed Locatecell.com, a Web site that sells such records.
Locatecell.com, which is run by a company called 1st Source Information Specialist, was not reachable by phone to explain its methods. But according to industry insiders, companies like it obtain their information from a relatively small group of professional "pretexters."
The "pretexters" buttress their believability by buying such personal data as Social Security numbers from online database companies. Often a name, address and the last four digits of a person's Social Security number are all that's needed to obtain calling records.
Another route is to buy the information from insiders, like phone company employees.
Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced a bill Wednesday making it illegal to pose as someone else when calling a phone company, or for an employee to sell customer data.
In the meantime, customers can put up a minor road block for pretexters themselves by asking their phone company to set a PIN code for their account instead of using their Social Security number.

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