CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Tech Industry

Online private eyes draw privacy complaints

Numerous Web sites that promise to dredge up personal data are raising concerns about an upsurge in identity theft and fraud.

Want to find a long-lost college buddy? Think your husband or wife is cheating on you? Numerous Web sites make being a private investigator as easy as double clicking.

There's Yahoo People Search, which allows people to type in a name and get an address and phone number. Typing a phone number into Google can bring up phone book results including addresses. Other common directories include Switchboard and

The basic information those sites provide is fairly innocuous, not much more than what people find in a good phone book. But smaller, lesser-known Web sites are cropping up that offer a speedy way to get much more sensitive information about people, from lists of phone calls someone has made to their Social Security number and employment information.

Privacy advocates worry that the ease with which that type of information can get into the wrong hands could lead to more identity theft and fraud, harassment or even stalking incidents.


What's new:
Numerous Web sites that promise to dredge up personal data such as Social Security numbers and employment are raising concerns about an increase in identity theft and fraud.

Bottom line:
Privacy advocates say online private investigator sites should be required to vet their clients to make sure they are not criminals and "have no ill intent" and should have limits on providing raw data to clients.

More stories on this topic

"There have been a number of cases where (private) investigators have provided data to a stalker who later killed the victim," including at least one case where an online company sold the data, said Chris Hoofnagle, director of the West Coast office of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Online private investigator sites should be required to vet their clients to make sure they are not criminals and "have no ill intent." In addition, there should be limits on providing raw data to clients, he said.

On July 7, EPIC filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate the practices of this growing niche.

EPIC has taken a particularly close look at Intelligent E-Commerce Inc (IEI), which operates the Web site.

IEI, based in Encinitas, Calif., advertises and provides online ordering forms for customers to obtain information about people in the United States and Canada, and says it uses private investigators to get the information. For $187, the company will provide someone's name, address and mobile phone call records. For $97, it will find out the personal mail box address of someone.

Those are categories of information that "cannot be obtained without legal justification," the complaint said.

IEI denies any wrongdoing, however. "IEI does not, nor would not, intentionally sell the services of licensed private investigators known to obtain information by illegal means," IEI President Noah Wieder wrote in an e-mailed statement this week. "IEI abides by the law."

IEI's cell phone and landline-based call records "help parents locate missing children, bail bondsmen locate fugitives, insurance companies refute fraudulent claims, collection agencies track down deadbeats, financial institutions locate people and collateral, and yes, spouses find out if their significant other is being faithful or cheating," Wieder wrote.

"There have been a number of cases where (private) investigators have provided data to a stalker who later killed the victim."
--Chris Hoofnagle, director, EPIC

Hoofnagle said he suspects the problem is broader than just one company and has asked the FTC for an industrywide investigation into online investigation sites. He said he had not researched the other companies enough to comment on the legality of their practices, but the EPIC complaint lists five other Web sites offering such services:

• People Search America offers details on calls and P.O. box records. A representative said in an e-mail that the company acts like an information broker. "Our company does not collect any information firsthand. Our company obtains its information from public and private databases on the Internet, for which my company, in the instance of a private database, pays a fee," the representative said.

"Our company endeavors to conduct itself at all times ethically and legally," the representative added. "In summary, most information we provide is location or background information. We do not provide complete Social Security numbers or driver's license numbers."

• Datatrace USA offers details on calls, name and addresses from unlisted phone numbers and the ability to link people to e-mail addresses. The New York-based company is run by private investigators who have been in the business for 15 years, said spokesman Steve Barkovitz. "Everything we do is part of the public record," he said.

• offers unlisted phone numbers and call records, identities of people using screen names on dating sites and in e-mails and instant messages, DNA testing and background checks.

"All of the allegations in the complaint are baseless and wrong," said Jay Patel, president of Abika. "Because of the Internet, information is becoming available to everyone. Why should it be accessed by only the elites?"

• OnlinePI offers cell phone location information, along with Internet and real-world surveillance. A company representative could not be reached for comment.

"The fact is that addresses and phone numbers and details of credit records aren't really that private."
--Kevin Bankston, staff attorney, EFF

• Discreet Research offers call records, phone searches and people location services. The company also did not return a phone call and e-mail seeking comment.

Although not mentioned in the complaint, Hoofnagle said he was also concerned with the practices of Privacy concerns recently.

Los Angeles-based ZabaSearch is a search engine for personal information that provides current and past addresses and phone numbers and often birthdates. It also lists an e-mail address for people to use if they want to be removed.

"ZabaSearch does not gather, collect or maintain any of the public record data or publicly available data displayed on its pages, but acts as a gateway to publicly available and public record information," the Web site says.

Spokeswoman Michelle Jordan said the company only offers access to nonconfidential information obtained from public sources, such as property records, and data sold by companies that is gathered from places like sweepstakes entries, magazine subscriptions and credit card applications.

The founders of ZabaSeach argue that far from doing harm, they are in fact doing good by making it easy to find information that is in the public domain already but which only a select few have had access to.

That's a point at least one privacy advocate can see.

"The fact is that addresses and phone numbers and details of credit records aren't really that private. In fact, they are sloshing around many databases, bought and sold by data warehouses," said Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "ZabaSearch is making that information available to everyone instead of just the moneyed elites."