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FTC to court: Put an end to pretexting operations

Request comes as criminal charges still hang over the head of former HP chairman and others in connection with spying campaign.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read
The Federal Trade Commission has asked a U.S. district court to permanently halt operations that engage in telephone record pretexting.

Pretexting is at the heart of the scandal that led to conspiracy and identity theft charges against Patricia Dunn, Hewlett-Packard's former chairman, and four others. Investigators hired by the company allegedly used deceptive means to obtain phone records belonging to journalists, HP employees and board members as part of a company-backed spying operation into news leaks.

Among the several people connected to the HP investigation and named as principals in the FTC complaint were data brokers Matthew DePante and Bryan Wagner. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

The FTC alleged in a statement issued Thursday that since 2005, "the defendants have obtained confidential customer phone records, including lists of calls made and the dates, times, and duration of the calls, and sold them to third parties without the knowledge or consent of the customers."

Both men were allegedly involved in helping HP uncover the source of news leaks on the company's board of directors. Charges in California are still pending against DePante. Wagner pleaded guilty in January to federal charges of conspiracy and identity theft. Neither man's attorneys could immediately be reached for comment.

Others accused of pretexting in the FTC complaint are Joseph DePante (believed to be Matthew's father), Cassandra Selvage and Eye in the Sky Investigations.

The five-member commission voted 5-0 to authorize the filing of the complaint.

The case is just the latest example of attempts by the U.S. government to crack down on pretexting.

President Bush in January signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006. Anyone convicted of employing fraudulent tactics to persuade phone companies to hand over confidential data about a customer's calling habits can be sent to prison for up to 10 years.

Some states, such as California, have already outlawed telephone pretexting. But many politicians and consumer advocacy groups have urged passage of a federal law to once and for all clarify that the practice is illegal.

The commission's complaint is not a binding legal decision. The FTC files complaints when it has reason to believe that the law has been violated. But it's up to a judge to decide whether the FTC is correct.

HP issued a statement on Thursday commending the FTC for filing the complaint.

"HP is opposed to pretexting and has expressly called for the practice to be made illegal," the company said in a statement. "We support the FTC's efforts to permanently halt telephone record pretexting."

HP has become the poster child for pretexting, though the technique was widely practiced years before HP launched its leak hunt. Besides obtaining personal phone records, Dunn and several other HP employees acknowledged that the company had conducted surveillance and attempted to trick reporters into turning over information about their HP confidential sources.

Dunn, former HP ethics officer Kevin Hunsaker, and investigators Ronald DeLia and DePante are charged with felonies by the state of California.

California's state attorney general dropped charges against Wagner after he pleaded guilty in federal court.

At the state level, the four could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. All have pleaded not guilty to the charges.