Targeting Thieves Who Steal Cell Phone Data
By Goldstein, Scott
New Jersey is zeroing in on scam artists who sell the confidential information over the Web
New Jersey is on the front line of a nationwide battle to ban businesses that fraudulently obtain peoples’ cell phone data-such as billing addresses and lists of people they talk to-and sell them to private investigators, divorce lawyers, rival businesses and others for around $100 a list.
The companies that provide the service-most appear anonymously on the Internet with names like locatecell.com and datatraceusa.com- generally get the confidential information by calling cell phone providers and posing as customers or employees of the phone company.
“These records can reveal the names of a person’s doctors, their public and private relationships and business associates,” says state Assemblyman David Mayer (D-Gloucester), who last week introduced legislation (A-2359) that would make obtaining and selling the data a crime. “In this day and age when identity theft is running rampant, we have to do all we can to protect this type of information from getting into the wrong hands.”
In Trenton last month, U.S. District Court Judge Stanley R. Chesler struck a serious blow to the cottage industry. The judge, in response to a suit filed by Verizon Wireless, issued a preliminary injunction against the owners of locatecell.com, one of the nation’s most notorious cell phone data brokers.
In addition to ordering locatecell.com to cease operating, the court ordered the current and former owners of the Internet-based business to turn over all data they obtained relating to Verizon Wireless customers.
The court wants a list of the Website’s customers and a list of people whose data was stolen that could be included in a jury trial that Verizon Wireless is seeking.
The company, which has sued a number of cell phone data brokers in courts nationwide for what it described as “massive and ongoing” data theft, called the Trenton injunction “one of the strongest rulings yet.”
“This is an important victory not just for Verizon Wireless customers, but for customers of all wireless companies,” says Michael Holden, a Verizon Wireless attorney. “This ruling puts an end to these defendants’ attempts to steal our customers’ private information.”
The injunction was filed against Knoxville, Tenn.-based Data Find Solutions Inc. and its owner, James Kester, as well as Tamarac, FIa.- based First Source Information Specialists, and its owners Steven Schwartz and Kenneth W. Gorman. In addition to locatecell.com, the two companies ran celltolls.com, datafind.org and people- searchamerica.com,
These companies obtained the data by dialing Verizon Wireless customer service centers and posing as Verizon employees “hundreds of times” in recent months, according to the lawsuit.
In one common scheme, the scam artists claimed to be calling on behalf of a customer with a disability, whom they also impersonate, the complaint says.
The case, which charges the companies with fraud, conspiracy and unfair competition and trade practices, was filed in New Jersey partly because some of the cell phone data obtained belonged to New Jersey customers, says Lynette Viviani, a spokeswoman for Bedminster- based Verizon Wireless. The company, the nation’s second largest cellular operator, declined to say how many of its customers had their data stolen, or what steps were being taken to prevent theft. In a prepared statement, Verizon Wireless spokesperson David Samberg said the company is taking “aggressive preventive actions,” but “to discuss them in an open forum just helps the sneak-thieves and the crooks.”
Verizon was the first major carrier to sue data brokers last summer. Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile USA have followed.
Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 40 to 100 Websites for cell phone data outfits. In the wake of the lawsuit, datacell.com has shut its Website. At the site is a single page that reads in part, “We are no longer accepting new orders. Thank you for your patronage. It was a pleasure serving you.”
Another service, datatraceusa.com, last week was offering a list of any cell phone user’s “incoming and outgoing calls” for $110. All they need is a person’s name, address, and cell phone number, and they send you the data by e-mail in less than a day. The Website company is paid by credit card.
The issue came to light last summer when General Wesley Clark, the former presidential candidate and onetime head of NATO, had his records obtained by a blogger, John Arovisis, who said he was able to go to a Website and get Clark’s cell phone bill for a charge of $89.95, no questions asked. The blogger said he wanted to show people how easy it was to have their privacy violated.
Since then, the U.S. Senate and the Florida Legislature have been considering bills that would make it a crime to obtain and sell records and other private information belonging to cell phone, landline and Internet telephones customers. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are probing allegedly fraudulent sales of cell phone records.
But Mayer, the New Jersey state assemblyman, is not waiting around for federal legislation. “This is an issue for the federal government to prohibit, but we have been a little faster in the past in enacting regulation to protect consumers,” Mayer said.
New Jersey Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), who also supports state legislation, wondered aloud who is ordering stolen phone data. Terrorists seeking people’s whereabouts? Criminals seeking the identity of police informants? “We need to take steps not only to protect consumers, but law enforcement officials whose lives can be endangered by this kind of activity,” Beck said. “Obtaining a person’s phone records under false pretenses and then selling that information is an atrocious invasion of privacy. I find it appalling that companies are profiting from a blatant violation of consumer rights.”
Beck introduced two pieces of legislation on Jan. 30 to prevent data theft: A-2104 establishes financial and jail penalties for those that steal confidential phone records and for those that purchase them, and A-2105 establishes a 10-member task force to develop recommendations to prevent data theft.
“Obtaining a person’s phone records under false pretenses and then selling that information is an atrocious invasion of privacy.”
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Copyright Snowden Publications, Inc. Feb 13, 2006