Online Data Gets Personal: Cell Phone Records for Sale

The only place cell phone call records are kept is with the phone companies.
The only place cell phone call records are kept is with the phone companies. (By Bebeto Matthews -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 8, 2005

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.

Think your mate is cheating? For $110, will provide you with the outgoing calls from his or her cell phone for the last billing cycle, up to 100 calls. All you need to supply is the name, address and the number for the phone you want to trace. Order online, and get results within hours.

Carlos F. 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 J. 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.

"There are probably 100 such sites" known to security officials at Verizon Wireless that offer to sell phone records, said Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman, who said Verizon is always trying to respond to abusive practices. He said that the company views all such activity as illegal and that "we have historically, and will continue to, change policies to reflect the changing nature of criminal activity," though he declined to be specific.

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