- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

Some members of Congress are acknowledging that private investigators could be hurt by proposed legislation to curb identity theft.

Others say they are not concerned about the effect on private investigators, despite the industry’s warnings about a disaster for the legal system.

Congress has not addressed the role of private investigators in the half-dozen identity-theft bills proposed this session or planned for introduction soon.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican, said a solution could be to exempt licensed investigators from some restrictions on access to consumer information.

“The balance is how much information do we give to private investigators,” said Mr. Stearns, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee. “That’s a legitimate question.”

Private investigators say new restrictions to prevent identity theft interfere with their ability to conduct background checks and locate witnesses in court cases and heirs to estates.

The new and proposed restrictions limit private investigators’ access to Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses and dates of birth.

Other members of Congress oppose any exemption for private investigators.

“Anyone who scans the Internet looking for Social Security numbers, unlisted phone numbers or other sensitive personal information will immediately turn up a number of Web sites that appear to be affiliated with private investigators,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat. “These firms are selling the privacy of American families and they should not be exempted from any identity-theft legislation.”

The investigators say anyone seeking a court judgment could be hurt.

“If I can’t locate a key witness, then criminal defendants are not going to get due process and a fair trial. The same holds true for civil litigation issues,” said Brian McGuinness, president of the National Council of Investigation and Security Services.

About 50,000 private investigators operate in the United States, according to the council. Their access to information is regulated by a patchwork of federal and state laws.

The Federal Trade Commission recommended yesterday that lawmakers look at strengthening laws that govern the way companies store and use sensitive consumer data.

The agency’s chairman, Deborah Platt Majoras, also endorsed the idea of a law requiring companies to tell consumers about a security breach when there is significant risk of identity theft.

The FTC estimated that identity theft cost U.S. businesses $48 billion and consumers another $5 billion over a recent one-year period.

Current law prohibits credit reporting agencies from selling names, addresses, Social Security numbers and dates of birth except to licensed financial institutions and law-enforcement agencies.

However, it does not clearly describe what data brokers can do with the information. In many cases, the commercial data brokers decide who can buy the information, and there have been breaches affecting hundreds of thousands of consumers.

“I’m precluded from running some of the searches that have been available to me for years because I’m not getting driver’s license numbers,” Mr. McGuinness said. “If I get a very common name and no other information, how am I going to find that witness?”

Clients typically include law firms, insurance companies and major corporations. The companies usually want background checks on prospective employees or business partners.

William Stollhans, president of the Private Investigators Association of Virginia, said witness searches he used to perform in one hour can take more than 40 now. He said the additional work can include knocking on doors and making numerous phone calls, at an increased cost to clients.

Forty-four states, including Maryland, Virginia and the District, require private detectives to be licensed.

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