You can see who you've been talking to on your cell phone by taking a quick glance at your monthly bill. What's disturbing is anyone with online access can pay to find out some of that exact same information.
Online credit card scams and fraudulent e-mail spam that seek personal financial information have raised awareness of the threat of identity theft. But now privacy groups and security concerns are also raising the alarm about so-called online "information brokers" -- Web sites that will obtain and sell personal information to anyone willing to pay.
At LocateCell.com, for example, suspicious spouses can pay $110 and secretly obtain the cell phone records of their partners. For additional fees, the company will even identify the names and address of suspicious numbers so customers can determine exactly who their partners are calling. All results, according to the company's Web site, are "guaranteed to be accurate" and can be delivered in as little as an hour.
Sites such as BestPeopleSearch.com will go even further. Online customers can dig up all types of personal information -- phone records, work history, arrest records, residential and mailing addresses, motor vehicle records -- for fees ranging from $37 to $250.
Privacy advocates note that open access to such information might not lead to financial fraud or other identity theft crimes that depend upon obtaining someone's Social Security or credit card number. They say, however, that unregulated access to detailed personal information is not only extremely invasive but even helps facilitate other illegal activities, such as industrial espionage.
"If you're the CEO of Google, your phone records are worth their weight in gold," says Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C. And "If you have key pieces of information -- Social Security numbers, phone records and numbers -- you can use that to gain access to other bits of data like [bank] account numbers and financial records."
Moreover, while recent attention on financial fraud and identity theft have brought about stricter rules and laws to protect those records, there are far fewer rules that regulate personal information such as telephone records.
And while the telecommunications industry claims that service providers release detailed call logs only under court-issued orders, privacy and security experts suspect that the online data brokers are taking advantage of the legal gaps.
Hoofnagle, for one, is skeptical that the many Web sites selling personal information all use purely legal means. "They say they get these through legal means, like 'dumpster diving,'" he says. "But there's no way that a company can guarantee an online customer that they're going to get someone's phone records in four hours by going through the [telephone] company's trash."
Instead, Hoofnagle and others believe these online information brokers are using a mix of old and new illicit tricks to get at supposedly protected phone call data.
"In some instances, they have contacts on the inside they can bribe," says Rob Douglas, a former private investigator of 20 years. "But a majority of instances … almost exclusively, they are using 'pretexting.'"