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Lawmakers Move Against Phone Record Brokers

Federal lawmakers wasted little time Wednesday responding to the growing black-market traffic in stolen private wireless and wireline telephone records, introducing legislation to criminalize the practice.

Meeting on the first day of the 2006 legislative session, Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Charles Nelson (D-Fla.) immediately dropped the Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act of 2006 into the legislative hopper.

The bill will make it a felony offense to obtain customer information from a telephone service provider under false pretenses or access a customer account on the Internet to obtain billing information without authorization.

Phone company employees selling customer information without proper authorization would also face felony charges.

The bill applies to cell phone, landline and voice over IP records.

"Stealing someone's private phone records is absolutely a criminal act, and the fact that it can't be prosecuted as one has got to change," Schumer said in a statement. "Stealing a person's phone log can lead to serious personal, financial and safety issues for just about any American."

The legislation comes just days after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched an investigation into online sites offering for sale the personal telephone records of Americans.

According to Schumer's office, the records are illegally obtained using three techniques.

The first is through an insider at a phone company who sells the data. Although phone companies have strict prohibitions against the practice, Schumer said finding someone with access who is willing to sell the data is "not that difficult."

The second technique is known as "pretexting," where a data broker pretends to be the owner of a phone number and convinces a company's employees to release the data to them.

Third, thieves can access individual phone accounts online. Phone companies favor customers to manage their accounts online and often set up that capacity in advance. Since many consumers still refuse to do business online, the accounts become prime targets for those who can figure out how to activate the account.

All phone records, but especially cell phone records, can provide criminals with a wealth of personal information. Many call rosters can reveal the names of a cell user's doctors, their public and private relationships and their business associates.

"This is a simple matter of consumer privacy," Nelson said. "I feel strongly that sensitive personal information, including our cell phone records, should be protected from the eyes of strangers."

Verizon Wireless, which has sought and won injunctions against online sites selling cell phone data, was quick to praise the Senate action.

"We believe this legislation will give federal prosecutors and others in law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on this despicable practice and help defend the privacy of U.S. cell phone customers," Steve Zipperstein, vice president of legal and external affairs at Verizon Wireless, said in a statement.