Robert Douglas, the intermediary, operates the consulting firm PrivacyToday.com. Douglas, who chose the method of acquiring the numbers on his own, said he used the pretext of tax preparation because that would be a common trick used by an identity thief at this time of year.
Michael Leighton, a North Carolina private investigator who operates secret-info.com, acknowledged that he did not request further documentation from Douglas. But he said the company verifies that a requester is calling from a land-based phone line with a valid address. Douglas said he used a cell phone.
Keeping Social Security Numbers Safe Although Social Security numbers are used by businesses throughout the economy, privacy advocates recommend that individuals take several steps to limit the distribution of their numbers.
"We get on average between 30 and 75 requests a week," Leighton said. "We maybe do less than 10" because others did not have a valid reason for seeking a Social Security number.
Leighton declined to say whether he received the data directly from a large data broker, or from other re-sellers.
The other site that provided the reporter's number, USRecordsearch.com, does not advertise that it sells the numbers. But with the same explanation for why he wanted the data, Douglas received the reporter's full number.
A principal of the Florida-based company did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Under a law that took effect in 2001, non-public data from financial records cannot be sold or transferred without giving individuals a chance to opt out. There are several exceptions, however, including employment checks, for tax filing, or to process a financial transaction.
But the system relies on the honesty of the person seeking data, and the diligence of the person selling it.
"Until Congress understands about the re-sale market here, they are not going be able to get a handle on this problem," Douglas said.
Bruce Hulme, chairman of the legislative committee of the National Council of Investigation & Security Services, the largest investigators' trade group, said he could not condone investigators who make a side business out of indiscriminately selling data.