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Cell phone directory rings alarm bells

An online directory of 90 million mobile telephone numbers is raising concerns among cell phone users and privacy advocates about unwanted callers who rack up the minutes on their calling plans and the difficulty of opting out of the list.
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An online directory that claims to provide 90 million mobile telephone numbers is raising concerns among cell phone users and privacy advocates about unwanted callers who rack up the minutes on their calling plans and the difficulty of opting out of the list.

Until now, cell phone users, reluctant to be interrupted in their cars or in public with unsolicited calls, could try to protect the privacy of their numbers by being judicious about whom they gave them to. But the directory service, offered by Intelius Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., threatens to take away that privacy.

Intelius charges $14.95 a pop for the numbers, which it says it collects from public sources, such as property records and other businesses. The owner of a number has no say in the matter.

Intelius claims that it has about half the mobile phones in the country in its database, which means a lot of searches come up as false negatives. An reporter ran searches on several people and came up empty — but he did find his own private cell phone number, albeit with some incorrect information.

A cell phone used by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can also be bought. When a reporter for NBC affiliate KGET of Bakersfield called the number, the person on the other end, who was connected to one of Schwarzenegger’s private businesses, expressed concern about how easy it was to obtain the private number.

So did one of the nation’s largest wireless carriers.

Verizon Wireless, which helped shoot down plans for a wireless directory as a “dumb idea,” said in a statement that it would take whetever step was necessary, including litigation, to “protect its customers’ numbers and privacy.”

“Trolling the Internet, using data mining techniques and simply buying lists to create a directory are actions that clearly violate a consumer’s right to privacy,” the carrier said. “Verizon Wireless has long refused to release our customers’ numbers and we call on legislators and policy makers to ensure that what a consumer wants to be private stays that way.”

Send a fax to be removedTrisha Ebner of San Francisco also didn’t like the idea that anyone might be able to get her number without her knowledge.

“That seems kind of ridiculous,” she said. “I think you should have to opt in rather than opting out.”

Intelius, however, does not make it easy to opt out of the service. There is no form on the company’s Web site, which says users must send in a fax with proof of identity.

Nor will it tell you whether you are in the database. To find that out, you have to be prepared to shell out the $14.95 to search for your number, although the company says there’s no charge if the search fails.

“Intelius requires people to use the mail, to fax requests, to make copies of driver’s licenses and other things,” said Joseph Ridout, consumer services manager of the advocacy group Consumer Action. “It’s clearly an attempt to drag their feet and discourage as many opt-outs as possible.”

Intelius is led by Naveen Jain, who founded Infospace Inc. before paying a multimillion-dollar settlement in connection with allegations of insider trading. The cell phone database has been live for a few months, but its privacy implications took on added urgency this month when the company filed for a $144 million initial public offering.

Intelius seeks to cash in with IPO
Intelius officials would not comment, citing the quiet period leading up to the IPO. In its filing, however, the company noted that it was able to get around laws that bar telephone companies from compiling cell phone directories without users’ consent because the laws did not mention third parties — like Intelius.

It acknowledges that “changes in the laws and regulations governing access to public information and the collection or sale of publicly-available information could make it more difficult for us to conduct business.”

Such changes could be in the works. Rob McKenna, the attorney general of Washington, whose laws govern Intelius’ operations, is seeking legislation to ban third-party directories, too. Companies would be subject to $50,000 fines per violation. The state Legislature convened hearings this week on a similar bill that would require companies to get users’ consent before publishing their mobile numbers, consent that they could revoke at any time.

But until that day comes, Intelius is pushing ahead aggressively with its directory.

In August, before its IPO filing required him to remain silent, Ed Petersen, the company’s executive vice president, said it was surprisingly easy for Intelius to compile its directory. The company considers a consumer to have opted in to the service if he or she has ever given the number to a government agency or a business.

"Geez, [there are] tons of ways — everything from going out to a Web site and buying a ring tone for your phone to putting your phone number down at anything [like] ordering a pizza,” Petersen told NBC affiliate KING of Seattle. “There are literally dozens and dozens of ways that a user or a consumer could opt in to a database.”

Cell phone users said that seemed to be cheating.

“If we want to be reached, we’ll give the number to people,” said Rachel Tripp of Bakersfield, Calif.

Petersen acknowledged that Intelius was counting on cell phone users’ not knowing they were exposing their numbers to his database whenever they gave them out to other businesses.

“When they’re ordering pizza, they’re not thinking about opting into a database,” he said.