By PATRICIA SABATINI
January 31, 2006
Don't care? Privacy experts say you should.
Suppose your phone logs were used by a stalker or abusive spouse to locate you or your friends or children? Perhaps a dangerous criminal discovers you've been helping the police by snooping into officers' telephone records. Or maybe your unscrupulous boss just wants to find out what you do after work as ammunition to demote or fire you.
"Stealing a person's phone log can lead to serious personal, financial and safety issues for just about any American," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week after introducing federal legislation that would make the unauthorized sale of private cell, land-line or Internet phone records a felony.
So-called data brokers have been selling personal phone records for years, but privacy concerns over the practice have been growing as Web sites offering the service have proliferated.
The Federal Communications Commission recently disclosed that it had launched an investigation into "troublesome data brokering practices," including whether phone companies are doing enough to protect customer records.
And several state attorneys general's offices have been examining the issue for the last several months as part of a multi-state privacy group.
Phone companies themselves have started to take action against some of the data brokers, which often steal customer records by tricking phone company employees or paying them for the data.
Cingular Wireless, the nation's biggest cell phone carrier, two weeks ago obtained a temporary restraining order against 1st Source Information Specialists, a Florida firm that operates the online phone record service www.locatecell.com.
For now, the industry appears to be feeling some of the heat.
Last week, several unsuccessful attempts were made to order reporters' and an editors' cell phone records.
At www.datatraceusa.com, which was advertising a month's worth of incoming and outgoing calls for $110, our order was rejected with an e-mail saying the service was currently unavailable and advising us to seek an alternative. At Locatecell.com, a notice was posted on its home page saying orders for Cingular phone records were no longer being accepted.
The site did take our order for a Verizon Wireless number, however. The process was simple: All that was needed was the party's cell phone number, our credit card number and address. But even though the site boasts a turnaround time of one to four hours, two days later we still had not received the records. We tried to inquire, but the company's voice mail box was full and e-mails did not go through.
Another site, www. bestpeoplesearch.com, said it had discontinued all phone record searches because of the "controversy" surrounding the practice. It suggested consumers call their state legislators "to tell them you need these searches to find criminals, stop insurance fraud, find runaway children and deadbeat debtors."
Still, experts say dozens of similar sites continue to operate.
"We shut them down and another one pops up," said Laura Merritt, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, which successfully sued two such services last year.
Phone companies say the only legitimate way to get phone records is to order your own or have a subpoena or court order.
Data brokers often get the information by pretending to be the customer, a regulator or phone company employee. These so-called "pretexters" may buy a customer's personal data, such as Social Security numbers from online sources, to help gain access to the accounts.
"It's a con job and they are very good at it," said John Walls, spokesman for the wireless association CTIA.
Phone companies say they are trying to crack down on pretexters, but don't want to make access to accounts so inconvenient that customers are turned away.
"You have to strike a balance," Walls said. "The vast majority of calls are legitimate. You don't want to irritate people and make it more difficult to access information they have a right to."
For customers worried about snoops stealing their phone records, some companies including Cingular and Verizon offer the option of restricting account access by requiring a pass code.
"Every carrier has different techniques," Walls said. "Contact your customer service representative and take advantage of the additional protections."
Both Cingular and Verizon said they would continue to aggressively pursue companies trying to steal customer records.
"People who are doing this are bad guys," Cingular spokesman Mark Siegel said.
"They call them(selves) data brokers. We think of them as data bandits."
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