WASHINGTON – Lawmakers promised Wednesday to put an end to shady practices by private data brokers who covertly gather Americans' telephone records without subpoenas or warrants on behalf of banks, bail bondsmen and even federal and local police.
These brokers, many of whom market aggressively on the Internet, have tricked telephone carriers into revealing private customer information and broken into online accounts, sometimes by guessing passwords that were the names of pets, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
"She has two pets, one named Rainbow and the other is Max," wrote a private detective, Donnie Tidmore of Waco, Texas, in September in an e-mail to a data broker, PDJ Investigations of Granbury, Texas. The detective wanted lists of cellular calls and the Social Security number of a Virgin Mobile USA subscriber for a case. Tidmore didn't return a phone message from the AP late Tuesday.
"This is a crime and we need to put a stop to it," said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The panel's Republican chairman, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, said broker practices "seem to be illegal," and he promised to press for a broader vote in Congress on legislation the committee has already approved to outlaw efforts to impersonate customers to trick companies into revealing personal records.
"Unfortunately, brokers routinely lie to get their hands on this information," Barton said.
Sensitive to public unease over disclosures of private phone records in the murky industry, lawmakers started two rounds of oversight hearings Wednesday to investigate which laws, if any, might have been violated:
—Did customers, who included police agencies, lenders, collection firms and suspicious spouses, break laws when they sought records of someone's private telephone calls?
—Did data brokers commit crimes when they provided the information for a price?
—Did contractors working with brokers violate laws by calling telephone companies and impersonating customers to trick carriers into revealing private billing information?
—Did leading telephone companies break laws by not protecting customer information more vigorously?
"There's a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it's not really clear precisely which laws," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., head of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee.
Lawyers for the data brokers said the companies are innocent, that brokers protected themselves by requiring their contract workers to sign statements promising to obey the law.
"While it may be distasteful for many, there was no bright-line law that prohibited this," said James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers and was expected to attend this week's congressional inquiry.
Eleven people identified by lawmakers as data-brokers who were summoned to testify declined to answer questions, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. One, Michele Yontef, smiled slightly when Whitfield read excerpts from an e-mail she sent to a colleague in July 2005 in which she complained: "I was shot down four times.... I keep getting northwestern call center and they just must have had an operator meeting about pretext as every operator is cued in."
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., called the brokers' business "atrocious," and noted that brokers have acknowledged providing information free to law enforcement agencies around the country.
"If you're a partner in law enforcement, why are so many people today taking the Fifth Amendment?" Walden asked.
PDJ's lawyer, Larry Slade, said he was confident no one at the company violated laws, but he acknowledged, "I'm not sure that every law enforcement agency in the country would agree with that analysis."
Documents turned over under subpoena to congressional investigators provide an unprecedented glimpse into how the industry operates. They show some of America's most famous corporate names — from automakers to insurers to banks — purchasing information on private citizens, often to track down delinquent customers.
Two such companies, Wells Fargo & Co. and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., said they have since ended relationships with data broker companies.
Obfuscation was the norm in an underground industry where lies are a way of doing business.
A California private investigator, Jay Rosenzweig, told the AP his detective firm occasionally worked with PDJ only to deliver a subpoena or record a witness statement. He said PDJ never gathered telephone records. "They don't do any of that work," Rosenzweig said.
But internal PDJ e-mails show Rosenzweig sought cellular telephone records of at least two people as recently as March. PDJ complained to Rosenzweig days later that operators at Verizon Wireless were being uncooperative. "Sorry we cannot get this one," a PDJ employee wrote to Rosenzweig, who replied, "Thanks."
After AP described the documents to Rosenzweig contradicting his statements, Rosenzweig said: "I don't know what to tell you. I don't want to get into this. I never broke any laws."