- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

Congress moves

to rein in sellers of

telephone records

he government may not think you are important enough to eavesdrop on your telephone conversations, but did you know that anyone with a passing interest and a few bucks can go online and buy a record of your phone calls?

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 have 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.

“The disclosure of consumers’ private calling records is a significant privacy invasion,” Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), told the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week.

Committee Chairman Joe Barton, Texas Republican, said it is far too easy for criminals to get their hands on sensitive personal information. He said he planned to offer legislation soon to combat the problem.

Other House and Senate lawmakers have introduced bills outlawing the questionable practice of “pretexting,” where data brokers call a phone company pretending to be a customer and persuade it to release the calling records. Pretexting for financial data is illegal, but no law prohibits pretexting for phone records.

Mr. Martin and Commissioner Jonathan Leibowitz of the Federal Trade Commission suggested Congress take a broader approach by adopting an outright ban on the commercial sale of phone records.

“That would send a very, very strong signal,” Mr. Leibowitz testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

Mr. Martin also said his agency was considering whether to tighten rules governing the phone carriers and how they handle customers’ calling records. The FCC is expected to vote this week on a petition by the Electronic Privacy Information Center on implementing more stringent standards.

“The threat environment is constantly changing, and static rules can quickly become outmoded or easily avoided by the fraudster,” said Steve Largent, president and chief executive of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA). He noted that major carriers including Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless have sued to shut down the online brokers peddling phone records.

The industry appears to be feeling some of the heat.

Cingular, the nation’s biggest cell phone carrier, obtained a temporary restraining order last month against 1st Source Information Specialists, a Florida firm that operates the online phone-record service www.locatecell.com. A notice was posted on its home page last week saying orders were no longer being accepted.

At www.datatraceusa.com, which was advertising a month’s worth of incoming and outgoing calls for $110, an order was rejected with e-mail saying the service was currently unavailable and advising customers to seek an alternative.

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, 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. But they don’t want to make access to accounts so inconvenient that customers are turned away.

“You have to strike a balance,” said CTIA spokesman John Walls. “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.”

Some companies, including Cingular and Verizon, offer the option of restricting account access by requiring a pass code.

“Every carrier has different techniques,” Mr. 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 themselves data brokers. We think of them as data bandits.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this report, which was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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