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Lawsuit Targets Sale of Call Data

Verizon Wireless says four websites used fraud to obtain cell records and then sold them.

January 25, 2006|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

Verizon Wireless on Tuesday stepped up the cellphone industry's fight against the sale of personal call records, suing the purported operators of four websites offering the history of almost any number.

The nation's second-largest cellular operator filed a federal lawsuit in New Jersey to prohibit the alleged data brokers from selling confidential customer records.

The suit alleges that the brokers posed as Verizon employees and customers to fraudulently obtain call logs and other information that was then sold over the Internet for as little as $25.

Verizon's action follows similar suits it and other wireless carriers have filed in recent months. In addition, Congress and two federal agencies are weighing measures to crack down on the sale of records that are illegally obtained.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Cellphone fraud -- A story in Wednesday's Business section said that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) had attended a news conference supporting a Senate bill that would make it a crime to fraudulently obtain and sell private phone records. Though he is a co-sponsor of the bill, Specter was not at the news conference.

"This is the Internet version of the good old telemarketing boiler rooms, and we're going to shut it down the way we shut the boiler rooms down," said Verizon Wireless General Counsel Steven Zipperstein, a former federal prosecutor.

The ease with which data brokers can obtain confidential records came to light last summer. And this month, blogger John Aravosis detailed how he bought the records of retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former U.S. presidential candidate.

On Tuesday, Clark stood at a news conference in the Capitol with Zipperstein and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to support a bill the three senators introduced last week.

"Legal remedies are required to stop this," Clark said. "Clearly, this is an example of the positive good government can do."

The Senate bill would make it a crime to obtain and sell call records and other private information from cellphone, landline and Internet telephony customers.

In the meantime, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have launched investigations into the allegedly fraudulent sale of cellphone records.

The FCC last week accused two data brokers of failing to comply with subpoenas the agency issued in November.

The agency warned the companies that they faced fines of as much as $97,500, forfeitures of as much as $11,000 per violation and misdemeanor contempt citations.

Verizon, which has acted aggressively in the past to protect the privacy of its customers, was the first major carrier to sue data brokers last summer. Since then, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile USA have sued various data brokers.

Sprint Nextel Corp. is investigating possible fraudulent activities.

Tuesday's suit names First Source Information Specialists Inc. in Tamarac, Fla., and Data Find Solutions Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn., as well as their owners and operators.

It alleges that First Source owns the domain names and Data Find operates websites LocateCell.com, CellTolls.com, PeopleSearchAmerica.com and DataFind.org.

Philip L. Schwartz, attorney for First Source, did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.

Data Find said Monday that it was not in the cellphone record business and had not owned or operated any websites since September. The company also said that James Kester, named as a defendant, did not own or operate any business "pertaining to cellphone records or data brokering." A call to DataFind.org was answered by voicemail that could not take messages.

According to transcripts attached to the lawsuit, a caller last October claimed to be a Verizon Wireless employee calling on behalf of a customer who was "voice impaired." His attempt to gain information, though, was thwarted by a customer service representative who insisted on getting the customer's password verified.

The websites charge $25 to $125 for confidential cellphone information.

DataFind.org, for instance, charges $125 for information on as many as 100 outgoing calls and $95 for an additional 100 calls per month. Other fees apply for the duration and time of each call.

Cingular Wireless said it won a temporary restraining order that requires LocateCell.com and CellTolls.com to post notices on their websites that they no longer can search for records on Cingular customers. But only CellTolls.com has posted such a disclaimer.

T-Mobile on Monday sued LocateCell.com and related companies in Washington state court.

Numerous other websites say they can obtain private information usually accessible only to law enforcement personnel.

Intelligent eCommerce Inc. in Encinitas said it had voluntarily stopped selling cellphone record searches, and removed the product from its BestPeopleSearch.com website.

It also provides information on how people can protect their cellphone records.

Such tips include telling the carrier not to list call details on the bill, protecting access with a password but without any hints or reminders and restricting call record requests only to the account holder, who must go to the carrier's retail store and show identification.

T-Mobile suggests that customers create separate passwords for voicemail, online access and customer service phone calls and that the passwords be as complex as possible using numbers and letters.

Cingular spokesman Mark A. Siegel said that investigating continuing violations was only part of the effort to curb illegal access.

"We want to make sure we do everything possible to protect the privacy of customer records," he said.

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