Video: Congress tackling pretexting

updated 9/29/2006 8:12:49 PM ET 2006-09-30T00:12:49

Executives from the nation’s largest wireless telephone companies told lawmakers Friday they should outlaw the practice of lying to get access to someone else’s phone records — also known as pretexting.

On the second day of testimony over the spying scandal that has embroiled the Hewlett-Packard Co., a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee asked the six executives to defend how they safeguard their customers’ private billing information.

The nearly three-hour hearing followed Thursday’s session at which Hewlett-Packard’s top executives were grilled about their roles in the scandal. Many invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination.

At Friday’s hearing only one witness, Doug Atkin, owner of Anglo-American Investigations Inc., invoked his right to refuse to testify.

The most impassioned testimony came from a reporter, Christopher Byron, whose phone records were obtained by a company about which he had written an unfavorable story.

Lawmakers asked what happened to a bill their panel had approved that would ban pretexting, underscoring the point by putting up a mock vintage movie poster in the hearing room that read, “H.R. 4943, Gone with the Wind.”

All six of the telephone company executives said they would support a bill criminalizing the practice of pretexting.

Thomas Meiss, associate general counsel at Cingular Wireless, the nation’s largest cell phone provider, said his company can sue a firm that obtains customer records from his company under false pretenses, but that is not enough of a penalty.

“I don’t trust these people at all,” he said of data brokerage firms that sell private phone records. “They need to be in jail.”

Last spring, the House passed a different bill by a vote of 409-0 that would put pretexters in prison for as long as 10 years and provide for stiff fines. A broader bill supported by the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has not made it to the floor, provides for civil fines against pretexters, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

Current law lets the FTC pursue those accused of obtaining financial records through fraudulent means, but the agency is limited in what it can do with pretexters.

Joel Winston, who heads the agency’s privacy section, said under current law the agency can only issue an injunction to make the pretexter stop doing business, and sue for ill-gotten profits. Legislation that allowed for specific fines against pretexting would be helpful, he said.

Kris Anne Monteith, chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau, said her agency has been trying to deter pretexters, including enforcing a requirement on carriers to certify that they have data protections in place. The FCC has issued $650,000 in fines against carriers for failure to comply with existing FCC rules on private customer information.

Monteith also acknowledged that the agency had issued “letters of inquiry,” the first step in an FCC investigation, to a number of carriers asking whether customer information was disclosed “without authorization in connection with Hewlett-Packard’s activities.”

The Senate is working on a compromise bill on pretexting that has become the victim of a turf war between two committees.

Congress is scheduled to adjourn this weekend, but will likely be back after the election for a “lame duck” session.

Meanwhile, the states appear to be having more success getting legislation passed. On Friday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an anti-pretexting bill into law.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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