July 18, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Online private eyes draw privacy complaints

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Want to find a long-lost college buddy? Think your husband or wife is cheating on you? Numerous Web sites make being a private investigator as easy as double clicking.

There's Yahoo People Search, which allows people to type in a name and get an address and phone number. Typing a phone number into Google can bring up phone book results including addresses. Other common directories include Switchboard and


What's new:
Numerous Web sites that promise to dredge up personal data such as Social Security numbers and employment are raising concerns about an increase in identity theft and fraud.

Bottom line:
Privacy advocates say online private investigator sites should be required to vet their clients to make sure they are not criminals and "have no ill intent" and should have limits on providing raw data to clients.

More stories on this topic

"There have been a number of cases where (private) investigators have provided data to a stalker who later killed the victim," including at least one case where an online company sold the data, said Chris Hoofnagle, director of the West Coast office of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Online private investigator sites should be required to vet their clients to make sure they are not criminals and "have no ill intent." In addition, there should be limits on providing raw data to clients, he said.

On July 7, EPIC filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate the practices of this growing niche.

EPIC has taken a particularly close look at Intelligent E-Commerce Inc (IEI), which operates the BestPeopleSearch.com Web site.

IEI, based in Encinitas, Calif., advertises and provides online ordering forms for customers to obtain information about people in the United States and Canada, and says it uses private investigators to get the information. For $187, the company will provide someone's name, address and mobile phone call records. For $97, it will find out the personal mail box address of someone.

Those are categories of information that "cannot be obtained without legal justification," the complaint said.

IEI denies any wrongdoing, however. "IEI does not, nor would not, intentionally sell the services of licensed private investigators known to obtain information by illegal means," IEI President Noah Wieder wrote in an e-mailed statement this week. "IEI abides by the law."

IEI's cell phone and landline-based call records "help parents locate missing children, bail bondsmen locate fugitives, insurance companies refute fraudulent claims, collection agencies track down deadbeats, financial institutions locate people and collateral, and yes, spouses find out if their significant other is being faithful or cheating," Wieder wrote.

"There have been a number of cases where (private) investigators have provided data to a stalker who later killed the victim."
--Chris Hoofnagle, director, EPIC

Hoofnagle said he suspects the problem is broader than just one company and has asked the FTC for an industrywide investigation into online investigation sites. He said he had not researched the other companies enough to comment on the legality of their practices, but the EPIC complaint lists five other Web sites offering such services:

• People Search America offers details on calls and P.O. box records. A representative said in an e-mail that the company acts like an information broker. "Our company does not collect any information firsthand. Our company obtains its information from public and private databases on the Internet, for which my company, in the instance of a private database, pays a fee," the representative said.

"Our company endeavors to conduct itself at all times ethically and legally," the representative added. "In summary, most information we provide is location or background information. We do not provide complete Social Security numbers or driver's license numbers."

• Datatrace USA offers details on calls, name and addresses from unlisted phone numbers and the ability to link people to e-mail addresses. The New York-based company is run by private investigators who have been in the business for 15 years, said

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The new Wild West
The internet today is pretty much like what the wild west was, that is, just about anything goes.
Only after severe consequencies will action be taken to put some rules around it. Unfortunately, by then the rules will be draconian.

A few months back a township resident applied for a permit to put on an addition to her home. One neighbor objected because the addition would block his view of stream. At the board meeting, the objecting neighbor presented all sort of disparaging information about the woman - from credit bureau report to child support and divorce information. All of this in the hope of proving that the she may be able to affort to start the work and not be able to finish it, thus the permit should not be granted.

Was this info always available, yes! But it was not $50 up front and a click of a mouse; you had to put some effort into it. I don't think the internet was intended to be a spy machine, yet here we are. And if we do nothing about it now, it will only get worse.
Posted by trudancor (14 comments )
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Phone company has obligations to the customer
I'm shocked at this idea that third parties are getting access to phone bill information--the customers of the phone companies are the paying clients here, not these outsider--so the phone companies have an obligation to keep our call information private. It's time for phone companies to be put on notice that we won't stand for this abuse and want any of their employees who are providing data to third parties to be fired; and any phone companies that are providing such information as a matter of policy ought to be slammed by state regulators.
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
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Phone company has obligations to the customer
I am with you, the phone companies need to be held accountable. Many years back when I had worked for a telecom company, as an employee I could be fired for accessing a customer's bill without a valid reason. Yet it's being made available to just about anyone today?? What's next, will my medical record be available to everyone?
Posted by trudancor (14 comments )
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I perform Computer Repair for a living but this is something else. I also agree the phone company needs to take responsibiltiy. http://computech-ct.com
Posted by computechsolutions (1 comment )
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I went to <a href="http://www.rentmeister.com/AirConditioningFAQs.html">buy air conditioner</a> to see what my options were. I didn't know if I should just repair my old one or go ahead and buy a new one. The workers there were able to explain my best option to choose from and what they recommend I do. I had a great experience!
Posted by jdirt126 (5 comments )
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Posted by sarajones1514 (4 comments )
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My buddies in the <a href="http://www.riversidenjbankruptcylaw.com/">law office in Riverside NJ</a> both agree that private investigating as a whole is just an industry founded on the violation of privacy. There can't be enough regulation of something like that without it becoming FEDERAL to justify it.
Posted by thiagodaluz7 (35 comments )
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