After more than eight months in limbo, a bill that would criminalize the practice of lying to obtain the telephone records of private citizens passed the Senate late Friday.
The Senate approved the anti-pretexting bill by a voice vote. The House passed it in April. It now goes to the White House for approval.
"Stealing someone's private phone records is a criminal act that can now be prosecuted," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., lead sponsor of the proposal in the Senate. "Phone information and call logs should be protected with the same safeguards as financial data or medical records."
The issue became big news late last summer following revelations that investigators working for executives at Hewlett-Packard Co. used deception to obtain phone numbers of board members and reporters in an effort to track down news leaks.
The legislation outlaws the practice of getting confidential phone records by "making false or fraudulent statements" to a phone company employee, by "obtaining false or fraudulent documents to access accounts" or by "accessing customer accounts through the Internet" without authorization.
Violators face fines and imprisonment of up to 10 years. Fines are doubled and five years may be added to the prison term if the violations involve more than than $100,000 or more than 50 customers.
The investigation of Hewlett-Packard is still under way. In a regulatory filing issued last month, the company said the Securities and Exchange Commission is conducting a formal investigation of the spying scandal and that the Federal Communications Commission has requested documents.
Ousted company chairwoman Patricia Dunn and four others linked to the spying case have pleaded not guilty to violating charges in a California court of charges including identity theft and fraud.
While there are federal laws that can be used to punish pretexters, there is no specific law banning the practice.
Support in Congress for an anti-pretexting bill has been near-unanimous, but it was held up thanks largely to a turf war in the Senate between two powerful committees.
The Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee passed different versions of a pretexting bill and were unable to reach a compromise.
The Senate Commerce bill contained language that would have pre-empted state laws on pretexting. That drew objections from consumer groups, who worried state laws that were tougher on pretexters would be invalidated.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the proposed bill would pre-empt its legal challenges in at least 10 states to the government's use of private telephone records in its anti-terrorism investigations.
The House bill was sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. Schumer sponsored an identical Senate version, but the Senate voted on the House version because it had already passed the other chamber.