WASHINGTON — They’re not just after your credit card or Social Security numbers. Fueled by the ease of online commerce, snoops are on the trail of other personal information, too. One of the hottest markets: records of phone calls, especially from cell phones.
A tool long used by law enforcement and private investigators to help locate criminals or debt-skippers, phone records are a part of the sea of personal data routinely bought and sold online in an Internet-driven, I-can-find-out-anything-about-you world. Legal experts say many of the methods for acquiring such information are illegal, but they receive scant attention from authorities.
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Carlos Anderson, a licensed private investigator in Florida, offers a similar service for $165, for all major telephone carriers.
“This report provides all the calls with dates, times, and duration on the billing statement,” according to Anderson’s Web site, which adds, “Incoming Calls and Call Location are provided if available.”
Learning who someone talked to on the phone cannot enable the kind of financial fraud made easier when a Social Security or credit card number is purloined. Instead, privacy advocates say, the intrusion is more personal.
“This is a person’s associations,” said Daniel Solove, a George Washington University Law School professor who specializes in privacy issues. “Who their physicians are, are they seeing a psychiatrist, companies they do business with … it’s a real wealth of data to find out the people that a person interacts with.”
Such records could be used by criminals, such as stalkers or abusive spouses trying to find victims.
Unlike Social Security numbers, which are on many public documents that have been scooped up for years by data brokers, the only repository of telephone call records is the phone companies.
Wireless carriers say they are aware that unauthorized people seek to get their customers’ call records and sell them, but the companies say they take steps to prevent it.
Mark Siegel, a spokesman for Cingular Wireless, called the acquisition of call records “an infinitesimally small problem” at his firm.
Some experts in the field aren’t so sure.
“Information security by carriers to protect customer records is practically nonexistent and is routinely defeated,” said Robert Douglas, a former private investigator and now a privacy consultant who has tracked the issue for several years.
Experts say data brokers and private investigators who offer cell phone records for sale probably get them using one of three techniques.
They might have someone on the inside at the carrier who sells the data. Another method is “pretexting,” in which the data broker or investigator pretends to be the cell phone account holder and persuades the carrier’s employees to release the information. Finally, someone seeking call data can try to get access to consumer accounts online.
Telephone companies, like other service firms, are encouraging their customers to manage their accounts over the Internet. Typically, the online capability is set up in advance, waiting to be activated by the customer. But many customers never do.
If the person seeking the records can figure out how to activate online account management in the name of a real customer before that customer does, the call records are there for the taking.