Video: How private is your data?

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/21/2006 8:02:29 PM ET 2006-06-22T00:02:29

It's a word you may not be familiar with, but it's a growing method used to invade your privacy by getting your phone or bank records. It's called "pretexting" — someone calling on a pretext, pretending to be you, to get sensitive information about you.

Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Damon Jones was stunned to find out that someone managed to get the records of nearly 2,000 calls he made from his cell phone.

When Adam Yuzuk, a New York businessman, called to get his billing records, he was told someone already had them.

"Once we figured out that somebody had set up an account in my name online, I, then, obviously was very upset," says Yuzuk. "And I wanted to know out that had occurred."

After JonBenet Ramsey was murdered in 1996, someone pretending to be her father got his phone call records.

That man was James Rapp. He told Congress Wednesday that it wasn't difficult, for someone armed with only a few pieces of identifying information, like a Social Security number, if they're willing to be persistent with the phone companies.

He even prepared a book to teach others how to use an "impersonation ability" — pretending to be someone else — to get information from willing and talkative customer service representatives.

"They're in a position to want to help you," Rapp said. "Their job is to satisfy the customer, not to spend a lot of time."

Wednesday, the operators of 11 different Web sites that advertise as information brokers appeared before a congressional committee. Often used by private investigators or lawyers looking for an advantage in a legal dispute, the information brokers claim they can easily get phone records. But all refused to say whether they ever lied to get those records – asserting their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Surprisingly, it's not clear that the practice is illegal. Even some police and federal agencies use data brokers to avoid having to get subpoenas.

"I think the American people would be shocked if they knew the kind of information that brokers are selling to third parties about their private lives," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.

Phone companies have been suing individual data brokers, but hope Congress will pass a law to ban the practice of lying to get someone's personal records.

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