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FCC Probing Phone Record Brokers

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going after online data brokers hawking private wireless and wireline telephone records.

The data the brokers are selling allegedly includes numbers dialed, calls received and the location of wireless callers. The FCC said it is investigating the practice.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits phone companies from using or disclosing proprietary customer information without the customer's approval.

"This must be a priority because every day such a problem exists puts American citizens needlessly at risk," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement. "So, we must move swiftly to determine how and to what extent data brokers are obtaining Americans' private phone records."

FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin last week confirmed in a letter to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that the FCC had launched the probe. Last November, Markey wrote to both the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaining about the practice.

"The reported abuses highlight the critical need to protect Americans' personal and private information. Few rights are so fundamental as the right to privacy in our daily lives, yet few are under such constant attack," Copps said. "Americans deserve the security of knowing that their private phone records are not for sale."

Racing ahead of the FCC and FTC are the phone companies themselves.

Last week, Cingular Wireless obtained a temporary restraining order halting the sale of phone records by two companies, Data Find Solutions and 1st Source Information Specialists.

Cingular believes 1st Source currently owns and operates several Websites that advertise the sale of phone records. Cingular also contends that Data Find Solutions previously owned the sites.

In December, Cingular filed a civil lawsuit alleging that these companies unlawfully obtained and disseminated Cingular customer records. Cingular's lawsuit claims Data Find Solutions and 1st Source obtained customer phone records through fraudulent methods such as posing as customers seeking information about their accounts.

"Cingular will not tolerate the theft of customer records," Joaquin Carbonell, Cingular's executive vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. "We plan to continue fighting cell phone record theft on a number of fronts, including working with law enforcement and policymakers to crack down on Websites that offer cell phone records for sale."

In November, Verizon also sued a data broker offering phone records for sale.

"I appreciate the recent efforts of phone companies to take action against these data brokers," FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said in a statement. "Still, the Commission must also take immediate steps to ensure that we have strong consumer privacy rules in place and that phone companies are employing effective safeguards to shield this data from harm."