ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A Congressional investigation shows that data brokers regularly trick communications companies into giving away customers' information. Today members of Congress promised to pass legislation to make that practice, known as pretexting, illegal. The investigation also shows that some of the nation's leading companies use data obtained from pretexting and so do some law enforcement agencies.
NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:
Congressman Ed Whitfield said the data brokers his committee studied can get their hands on just about any kind of record you could imagine.
Representative ED WHITFIELD (Republican, Kentucky): Cell phone, land line, call records, bank account activity, post office box, private mailbox information, blind credit reports, Social Security records, credit card transaction histories, email account information and goes on and on.
ABRAMSON: The House Commerce Committee investigation shows that despite Congressional hearings and media reports, online data brokers continue to boast about their access to this information. They rely on an old con known as pretexting. They pretend to be the phone subscriber or the credit card holder, tell customer service they've lost their password and beg for help.
James Rapp quit the business after he was indicted seven years ago, but he remains a legend. He told the committee that inevitably customer service representatives give in and give out information because they want to help the customer and move on.
Mr. JAMES RAPP (Indicted Data Broker): If I need a breakdown on my bill because I'm going to be a subcommittee meeting in Congress, then I need to get a breakdown of this bill in the next 20 minutes, what is their option but to say yes, let's go over your bill.
ABRAMSON: One victim of this attitude Adam Yusik(ph) of Atlantic Beach, New York, who told the panel he noticed something odd with his bill.
Mr. ADAM YUSIK (Data Brokering Victim): It became clear that someone was pretending to be me and reviewing my cell phone records.
ABRAMSON: Yusik said he tried to get his provider, Cingular, to increase security on his bill but someone kept peeking at his records. Yusik finally discovered that the peeker was his former employer, which was trying to gather information to defend against a lawsuit Yusik filed. Getting the records through a pretexter was apparently simpler than getting the subpoena.
In fact Congress has known about this problem for some time. Earlier this year, the same committee passed the Prevention of Fraudulent Access to Phone Records Act, but the bill got bogged down and never made it to the floor. That led Colorado Democrat Diane DeGette to ask, why bother to have this hearing now?
U.S. Representative DIANE DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): I can't remember in my 14 years a situation like this where we passed the bill, then we have the hearing to see how bad the problem is.
ABRAMSON: While Commerce Chair Joe Barton promised to move the bill along, other witnesses cautioned that information, however it's obtained, greases the wheels of the economy.
David Ganal(ph) is a skip tracer. He tracks down people who stop making car payments. He says he operates legally but he does rely on the kinds of information that privacy legislation would restrict. Ganal testified that the current system allows lenders to give car loans to people with bad credit.
Mr. DAVID GANAL (Skip Tracer): And they do this because they have the ability to recover the vehicle should the payments get too far behind. Well take away that last tool of (unintelligible) salvation, the skip tracer at the repossession company, and you will see that those with questionable credit will no longer be getting cars financed.
ABRAMSON: For this and other reasons the information broker industry will be tough to regulate. The committee had to subpoena 11 industry representatives, who were asked about the services they offer including cell phone records and post office box information. To a person, they took the route followed by Tim Burnt(ph) of Reliatrace.
Mr. TIM BURNT (Reliatrace): Mr. Chairman, I respectfully assert my privilege against self incrimination secured to me by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
ABRAMSON: Some data brokers indicated through their attorneys that they never broke any laws to obtain information. Most troubling to some lawmakers is the fact that some law enforcement agencies rely on this information underworld.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: And to see how local police, private investigators and even tabloid reporters have used data brokers to track their subjects, including NBA player Damon Jones, visit our website, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.