BY FRANK MAIN Chicago Sun-Times Crime Reporter
The Chicago Police Department is warning officers their cell phone
records are available to anyone -- for a price. Dozens of online
services are selling lists of cell phone calls, raising security
concerns among law enforcement and privacy experts.
Criminals can use such records to expose a government informant who
regularly calls a law enforcement official.
Suspicious spouses can see if their husband or wife is calling a
certain someone a bit too often.
And employers can check whether a worker is regularly calling a
psychologist -- or a competing company.
Some online services might be skirting the law to obtain these phone
lists, according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has called for
legislation to criminalize phone record theft and use.
In some cases, telephone company insiders secretly sell customers'
phone-call lists to online brokers, despite strict telephone company
rules against such deals, according to Schumer.
And some online brokers have used deception to get the lists from the
phone companies, he said.
"Though this problem is all too common, federal law is too narrow to
include this type of crime," Schumer said last year in a prepared
The Chicago Police Department is looking into the sale of phone
records, a source said.
Late last month, the department sent a warning to officers about
http://Locatecell.com , which sells lists of calls made on cell phones
and land lines.
"Officers should be aware of this information when giving out their
personal cell phone numbers to the general public," the bulletin
said. "Undercover officers should also be aware of this information if
they occasionally call personal numbers such as home or the office,
from their [undercover] ones."
Test got FBI's calls in 3 hours
To test the service, the FBI paid http://Locatecell.com $160 to buy the
records for an agent's cell phone and received the list within three
hours, the police bulletin said.
Representatives of Data Find Solutions Inc., the Tennessee-based
operator of http://Locatecell.com , could not be reached for comment.
Frank Bochte, a spokesman for the FBI in Chicago, said he was aware of
the Web site.
"Not only in Chicago, but nationwide, the FBI notified its field
offices of this potential threat to the security of our agents, and
especially our undercover agents," Bochte said. "We need to educate
our personnel about the dangers posed by individuals using this site
and others like it. We are stressing that they should be careful in
their cellular use."
How well do the services work? The Chicago Sun-Times paid $110 to
http://Locatecell.com to purchase a one-month record of calls for this
reporter's company cell phone. It was as simple as e-mailing the
telephone number to the service along with a credit card number. The
request was made Friday after the service was closed for the New
'Most powerful investigative tool'
On Tuesday, when it reopened, http://Locatecell.com e-mailed a list of
78 telephone numbers this reporter called on his cell phone between
Nov. 19 and Dec. 17. The list included calls to law enforcement
sources, story subjects and other Sun-Times reporters and editors.
Ernie Rizzo, a Chicago private investigator, said he uses a similar
cell phone record service to conduct research for his clients. On
Friday, for instance, Rizzo said he ordered the cell phone records of
a suburban police chief whose wife suspects he is cheating on her.
"I would say the most powerful investigative tool right now is cell
records," Rizzo said. "I use it a couple times a week. A few hundred
bucks a week is well worth the money."
Only financial info protected?
In July, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a petition
with the Federal Communications Commission seeking an end to the sale
of telephone records.
"We're very concerned about Locatecell," said Chris Jay Hoofnagle,
senior counsel for the center. "This is the company that sold the
phone records of a Canadian official to a reporter 'no questions
Schumer has called for legislation to criminalize the "stealing and
selling" of cell phone logs. He also urged the Federal Trade
Commission to set up a unit to stop it.
He said a common method for obtaining cell phone records is
"pretexting," involving a data broker pretending to be a phone's owner
and duping the phone company into providing the information.
"Pretexting for financial data is illegal, but it does not include
phone records," Schumer said. "We already have protections for our
financial information. We ought to have it for the very personal
information that can be gleaned from telephone records."
Contact Frank Main at firstname.lastname@example.org
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