Your phone records are for sale
January 5, 2006
BY FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter
The Chicago Police Department is warning officers their cell phone records are available to anyone -- for a price. Dozens of online services are selling lists of cell phone calls, raising security concerns among law enforcement and privacy experts.
Criminals can use such records to expose a government informant who regularly calls a law enforcement official.
Suspicious spouses can see if their husband or wife is calling a certain someone a bit too often.
And employers can check whether a worker is regularly calling a psychologist -- or a competing company.
Some online services might be skirting the law to obtain these phone lists, according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has called for legislation to criminalize phone record theft and use.
In some cases, telephone company insiders secretly sell customers' phone-call lists to online brokers, despite strict telephone company rules against such deals, according to Schumer.
And some online brokers have used deception to get the lists from the phone companies, he said.
"Though this problem is all too common, federal law is too narrow to include this type of crime," Schumer said last year in a prepared statement.
The Chicago Police Department is looking into the sale of phone records, a source said.
Late last month, the department sent a warning to officers about Locatecell.com, which sells lists of calls made on cell phones and land lines.
"Officers should be aware of this information when giving out their personal cell phone numbers to the general public," the bulletin said. "Undercover officers should also be aware of this information if they occasionally call personal numbers such as home or the office, from their [undercover] ones."
Test got FBI's calls in 3 hours
To test the service, the FBI paid Locatecell.com $160 to buy the records for an agent's cell phone and received the list within three hours, the police bulletin said.
Representatives of Data Find Solutions Inc., the Tennessee-based operator of Locatecell.com, could not be reached for comment.
Frank Bochte, a spokesman for the FBI in Chicago, said he was aware of the Web site.
"Not only in Chicago, but nationwide, the FBI notified its field offices of this potential threat to the security of our agents, and especially our undercover agents," Bochte said. "We need to educate our personnel about the dangers posed by individuals using this site and others like it. We are stressing that they should be careful in their cellular use."
How well do the services work? The Chicago Sun-Times paid $110 to Locatecell.com to purchase a one-month record of calls for this reporter's company cell phone. It was as simple as e-mailing the telephone number to the service along with a credit card number. The request was made Friday after the service was closed for the New Year's holiday.
'Most powerful investigative tool'
On Tuesday, when it reopened, Locatecell.com e-mailed a list of 78 telephone numbers this reporter called on his cell phone between Nov. 19 and Dec. 17. The list included calls to law enforcement sources, story subjects and other Sun-Times reporters and editors.
Ernie Rizzo, a Chicago private investigator, said he uses a similar cell phone record service to conduct research for his clients. On Friday, for instance, Rizzo said he ordered the cell phone records of a suburban police chief whose wife suspects he is cheating on her.
"I would say the most powerful investigative tool right now is cell records," Rizzo said. "I use it a couple times a week. A few hundred bucks a week is well worth the money."
Only financial info protected?
In July, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission seeking an end to the sale of telephone records.
"We're very concerned about Locatecell," said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, senior counsel for the center. "This is the company that sold the phone records of a Canadian official to a reporter 'no questions asked.' "
Schumer has called for legislation to criminalize the "stealing and selling" of cell phone logs. He also urged the Federal Trade Commission to set up a unit to stop it.
He said a common method for obtaining cell phone records is "pretexting," involving a data broker pretending to be a phone's owner and duping the phone company into providing the information.
"Pretexting for financial data is illegal, but it does not include phone records," Schumer said. "We already have protections for our financial information. We ought to have it for the very personal information that can be gleaned from telephone records."
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