updated 7/8/2005 10:02:42 PM ET 2005-07-09T02:02:42

A privacy rights advocacy group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Web sites advertising investigative services capable of digging up personal information such as phone call records are violating federal laws.

Washington D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the federal agency on Thursday, singling out Encinitas-based Intelligent e-Commerce Inc., which runs bestpeoplesearch.com.

"We've asked the FTC to begin an industrywide investigation into these practices," Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel at the group's San Francisco office, said Friday.

EPIC contends the company's services and that of hundreds of similar online investigation firms constitute unfair or deceptive business practices.

The Web site offers to find a wide scope of personal information on individuals ranging from unlisted phone numbers and addresses to detailed phone records, employment history and motor vehicle data.

The firm also offers to identify the owner of a post office box and advertises packages for information on an individual's criminal records. As of Friday, a list of the firm's most popular searches included Social Security numbers, name and address from a cell phone number and a "Cell Phone Report," which includes name, address and list of calls made.

"If you own a post-office box, your ownership of that is private. That information is being sold," Hoofnagle said. "Your land line and cell phone billing records are being offered for sale. These are also protected by statute."

Some services aggregate and resell public records information like listed phone numbers, address listings or, in states where it's allowed, even driver license records.

But EPIC says that's different from what online investigation services like Intelligent e-Commerce do.

The group accuses the firm and similar companies of procuring private information on phone records, for instance, by pretexting, or posing as their target to gain access to their online billing sites or to get copies of bills.

"They're not buying it, they're calling up and they're pretending to be the actual customer to get the data," Hoofnagle said.

Requests for comment left by phone and e-mail at Intelligent e-Commerce were not immediately returned Friday.

In a story published Friday by the Wall Street Journal, company spokesman Charles Splite said the firm was not aware of any law that its searches are violating.

Messages left with the FTC were also not immediately returned.

Hoofnagle said EPIC also plans to file complaints with state attorneys general, state regulators of private investigators and attorney bar association ethical committees, because it believes law firms are among the most frequent clients of the online investigation firms.

While private investigators may also use similar tactics, EPIC is focusing its complaint against online-based firms because the Internet gives them the ability to reach consumers far and wide.

"The main point here is that these services are being advertised in a way that makes it very easy for people to find them," he said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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