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EPIC Fighting Online Phone Record Sales

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) asked the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on online data brokers that sell information to consumers.

In a complaint filed on Friday, EPIC singled out Intelligent E-Commerce (IEI), a search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising consultancy that also seems to operate BestPeopleSearch.com. (The company registered the BestPeopleSearch.com domain and has the same address and phone number.)

According to its site, BestPeopleSearch offers an e-commerce approach to hiring a private investigator. Users can pay with a credit card in order to have "live private investigators search for current and accurate information."

In its complaint, EPIC referred to two cases in which stalkers used private investigators to locate victims and murder them.

But EPIC said BestPeopleSearch did worse: It offers access to information that even licensed PIs shouldn't be able to get.

According to the complaint, BestPeopleSearch offers detailed phone call records and the addresses on file for holders of post office boxes and private mailboxes. EPIC said the availability of this personal information is regulated, and the "private eye" service shouldn't be able to obtain it or sell it to others. For example, the Drivers Privacy Protection Act guards the personal information in motor vehicle records.

"By obtaining and selling private information about consumers that is not legally available, or is only available for narrowly-defined purposes, IEI has almost certainly caused substantial injury to consumers, and is likely to cause additional injury. Because its entire business consists of surreptitiously obtaining information about consumers, this injury is not avoidable at all by the consumers themselves," the EPIC complaint said.

EPIC said BestPeopleSearch also sells cell phone records and copies of people's residential long distance bills. "IEI does not represent how private investigators actually obtain this information, but it does not appear possible for them to reliably obtain this information without making misrepresentations (pretexting) to telecommunications carriers or soliciting the carriers to violate the Telecommunications Act," the complaint said.

An FTC spokeswoman said all investigations were "non-public," so she couldn't disclose whether the commission was already aware of the problem.

An Intelligent E-Commerce employee referred questions to the company's attorney, who did not return calls.

But an Oakland, Calif. private investigator said it's a dangerous practice for PIs to take clients over the Internet. "Any time you provide information to another individual, you need to know who they are," said Francie Koehler, a member of the California Association of Licensed Investigators. "That's the part people working over the Internet miss. They don't know their client."

Koehler, who typically works for attorneys in criminal defense and civil litigation matters, said she now holds back Social Security numbers she finds during her searches. "You never know where it's going to land," she said, "and we all have to be responsible."

Koehler, who was part of a project to research online private investigation services, said, "I know that many of them claim to get the information legally, I don't understand how that happens." When she's tried to get someone's phone records via subpoena, she said, "Every time you try, they send the telephone company lawyer in to quash the subpoena."

There's a need for legitimate data brokers, Koehler said, but "those companies should be selling to attorneys, maybe collection agencies, licensed investigators and process servers -- people involved in the legal system. There should be restrictions on sell any information to the general public."

EPIC asked the FTC to initiate an investigation into the information collection practices of IEI and businesses offering similar services, stop BestPeopleSearch from advertising access to legally protected personal information and to destroy all records it had obtained by illegal means.