Washington state legislators from both parties are backing efforts to make it a crime to sell cellular phone records on the Internet.
The bill is modeled after dozens already passed in other states; Congress is also considering legislation targeting companies that charge between $50 and $100 to track down details of an individual’s cell phone use, including what numbers were called.
Identical House and Senate bills in Olympia would make it a felony to obtain cell phone records through fraud or to sell them. The bills also make buying illegally obtained cell phone records a gross misdemeanor.
“I think this issue has taken on national importance,” said Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Kent, the sponsor of House Bill 3208. “Most people didn’t realize there was no guarantee of privacy for those records.”
The best-known instance of the practice was the disclosure last year by an online writer that he obtained a list of cell phone calls made by former presidential candidate Wesley Clark.
The company that sold the information to the writer, cell tolls.com, got the records by posing as a representative of Clark. Celltolls charged the writer $90 for the records; the writer then detailed the transaction in a Web log to highlight the problem.
Over the past year, lawmakers and consumer groups learned that about 30 online sites have been selling such records.
Most of the customers using those sites — with names like Discreetresearch.com — are private investigators, attorneys hired to resolve domestic legal disputes, and even law enforcement agencies, said Albert Gidari, a Seattle attorney with Perkins Coie LLP.
Gidari, on behalf of wireless company T Mobile, recently won a restraining order in Seattle against three Web sites that had been selling cell phone records. The three sites, Datafind.com, LocateCell.com and PeopleSearchAmerica.com, were operated by two companies in Dade County, Fla., Gidari said.
He said it’s uncertain how many Washington residents have been the victims of the practice.
“This is not an identity theft issue,” said Gidari. “It’s a matter of privacy of information.”
The sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Redmond, said in a committee hearing last week that he’s found no one who opposes the bill.
That Water, Energy and Environment Committee unanimously approved the bill and sent it to the full Senate for consideration. No date for a vote has been set.
The state’s major cell companies all back the bill.
“The data miners out there are a threat to our company and our industry,” Russell Sarazen, T-Mobile’s senior manager for government affairs, told the committee. “They’re a blight on the wireless industry.”
Gidari said it’s not easy for online data sellers to obtain cell phone records. In the Wesley Clark episode, the fraud included someone from cell tolls.com telling Clark’s cell phone company that Clark had a sore throat and was unable to make the request himself. Cell tolls.com had Clark’s social security number to persuade the cell phone company to release the information, said Gidari.
That scam, called pretexting —pretending to be a cell number’s account holder — is the most common way most such Web sites operate.
Two other methods cited by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group, involve cracking online account administration tools by guessing passwords and recruiting a cell company insider to sell personal data to the online data seller.
Anne Marshall, a spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless in Washington state, said the company has added new password protections to prevent online companies from grabbing records.
“We’ve also changed our policy so that an account holder asking for information will have their records sent to the address they have on file,” Marshall said.
In addition to criminal penalties, the proposed law would let victims whose cell phone records were sold sue violators in civil court. Each violation could produce damages up to $10,000.
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