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Senate may vote on pretexting bill this week

Bill would criminalize fraudulently buying or selling phone records; police and spy agencies would be exempt.

Before politicians go home for the year at the end of the week, the U.S. Senate may vote to generally prohibit telephone "pretexting," a stealthy and usually fraudulent investigative technique made famous by a high-profile probe of media leaks at Hewlett-Packard.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is using a procedure known as "hotlining," which would allow an already approved House of Representatives bill targeting pretexting to clear the Senate without debate and head to the president's desk to be signed into law. If no senators raise objections, the bill could be added to the Senate calendar and approved with a batch of other noncontentious items as soon as Thursday, a Republican leadership aide said.

In April, the House voted 409-0 to approve a measure that would mostly criminalize pretexting, or using fraudulent means to obtain telephone records, with prison sentences of up to 10 years, but the Senate never acted. The issue largely vanished from the limelight until a few months ago, when reports surfaced that private investigators employed by HP to look into boardroom leaks had used that tactic to obtain the phone records of journalists, including three CNET News.com reporters, and HP board members.

The legislation says anyone who purchases, sells or tries to obtain confidential phone records could face up to a decade behind bars. Police and intelligence agencies, however, would be exempt. They would be permitted to continue to engage in pretexting themselves or to hire private investigators to do it for them--a common government practice.

Federal and local law enforcement officials are frequent customers of Internet-based pretexting services. Some companies, like Advanced Research, have admitted in letters to Congress that they did work for the FBI. But Republicans bottled up antipretexting legislation backed by Democrats that might have regulated government use of fraudulent means to access telephone records.

Troubled by reports that virtually anyone could purchase a person's supposedly confidential phone records on the Internet for less than $100, politicians held hearings and proposed a flurry of antipretexting bills earlier this year.

Right now, federal law clearly bans pretexting to obtain someone's financial records, and some states, such as California, have already outlawed telephone pretexting. But politicians and consumer advocacy groups have urged passage of a federal law instead.

The House measure approved several months ago had reportedly stalled in the Senate because of committee spats over competing versions of antipretexting legislation, of which there were nearly a dozen during the last session.

Some versions, for instance, proposed placing a heavier burden on telephone companies to protect their customers' information. That move drew skepticism from some cell phone carriers that claimed they already had stringent practices in place and would only encounter higher costs and management headaches through new rules.

Politicians backing that approach had hoped to combine obligations for telephone carriers with the increased criminal penalties for fraudsters, but "with the narrow legislative window left, the House pretexting bill is the best opportunity to pass this legislation," one Republican Senate aide said. A Democratic Senate aide said she expected the additional requirements to resurface on Congress's agenda next year.

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report