FCC Probes Selling of Cell Phone Records

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Federal Communications Commission said yesterday that it is investigating the sale of private cell phone records, a move privacy advocates said was welcome but long overdue.

Numerous Web sites say they are able to provide records of incoming and outgoing cell phone calls, some for less than $100. While such records are routinely used by law enforcement agencies, experts warn that they can be exploited by criminals, such as stalkers or abusive spouses. The practice of using trickery to obtain the records from phone companies has been the subject of news reports for months.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin disclosed the investigation in a Jan. 13 letter to Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and it drew wider notice after the FCC's two Democratic commissioners issued statements about it yesterday.

"The commission . . . is very concerned about the availability and sale of such records, and is looking into the troublesome practices described in recent media reports," Martin wrote in the letter, which was released by Markey's office.

The FCC's enforcement bureau is investigating how companies obtained such records and whether phone companies had not followed rules designed to prevent such information from getting into the wrong hands, Martin said.

Experts say such records are sometimes obtained by people who impersonate cell phone customers and dupe their wireless providers into releasing the data despite safeguards designed to prevent this.

The use of fraud to obtain such information is subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, which told Markey in a separate letter that it had brought cases against firms that sell such information but would not comment on any current investigations.

"Finding out who people are calling and for how long can be like picking someone's brain about their friends, plans or business dealings," FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said in a written statement.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center nonprofit group, called the FCC's action "overdue."

"Clearly there is a problem with the failure to provide adequate privacy safeguards," he said. "The FCC is late to the issue, but it's a good thing that they are now focused on the need to change practices."

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