Congress quizzes phone records brokers

Politicos set Feb. 17 deadline for answers from companies that say they can look up calls made by nearly any phone.

Anne Broache
Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
2 min read
Politicians on Friday lobbed a dozen questions at companies that operate Web sites offering to sell a person's telephone calling record to anyone with $110 to spend.

Leaders from the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee, which convened a hearing Wednesday on the topic, sent letters with the queries to the director of Florida-based First Source Information Specialists, which manages Locatecell.com and Celltolls.com, among others, and to the director of Texas-based PDJ Services, which manages the site Phonebust.com. Legislators estimated this week that a total of at least 40 such operations exist.

The letters are the latest step in the government's attempts to investigate reports that such companies have been engaging in "pretexting"--that is, impersonating others--or bribing cell phone and landline providers to glean sensitive customer information and then selling those records online. Members of the House and the U.S. Senate have already introduced proposals aimed at making such practices a crime, with prison time a possible sentence.

"It is very disconcerting that certain online data broker companies are exploiting consumers' personal records and selling the information to whomever pays for the records," the letters sent to companies on Friday said. "With the exception of the legitimate activities of law enforcement authorities, who in any event have legal means for acquiring such information, we struggle to find any ethical justification for marketing this data."

The committee's requests included detailed company records, such as revenue and a list of services provided, information about the methods the companies use to acquire their information, records related to law enforcement requests for data, and "an explanation of whether any effort is made to obtain consent from consumers before selling their account data or to notify them after their records have been procured or sold."

The companies have until Feb. 17 to respond. The committee noted in its press release that it "has the power to subpoena records and testimony when it encounters uncooperative witnesses."

Both Locatecell.com and Celltolls.com were online Friday but had messages on their home pages saying they would not respond to queries regarding T-Mobile, Cingular or Verizon numbers. Locatecell.com continued to say, however, that other cell phone calling records were available for $110.

PDJ Service's Phonebust.com was also online, but a representative reached by CNET News.com said the company does not answer questions from reporters.

Last week, the same House committee asked the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that the top five wireless and wireline providers were taking adequate steps to guarantee the privacy of their customers' records.

The FCC responded by threatening two major providers, AT&T and Alltel, with $100,000 fines for failing to have a corporate executive personally sign off on the companies' compliance with federal regulations about protecting their customers' records.

Wireless carriers and the Illinois attorney general also have taken aim at data broker companies targeted by the government. First Source Information Specialists already faces a handful of lawsuits, though T-Mobile, Cingular and Verizon all recently obtained temporary restraining orders against the company, barring it from obtaining and selling their customers' records.