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July 8, 2005

Your cellphone billing records are for sale


Today's Washington Post Business section story by Jonathan Krim blew me away.

Now, it's fairly common knowledge that you can easily get someone's cellphone telephone number for a small price via many websites.

What I did not know until a couple hours ago was that you can buy the entire cellphone billing record of anyone — any number, anywhere — for as little as $110, on over 100 such sites.

And that's just the ones Verizon knows about, according to the story.

Yes, your outgoing phone numbers called, incoming calls, call origination locations, dates, times and duration, just as on your billing statement, are now available to anyone in the world.

So if you thought that by simply not leaving an email record of what you're up to you're home free — well, think again.

Long story short: there are three ways to get your records:

1) Buying the data from someone who works at the wireless carrier.

2) "Pretexting" — in which the data broker pretends to be the account holder and persuades the carrier's employees to release the information.

3) Gaining access to your online account — which you may not even realize exists, simply waiting to be activated by anyone who can convince the company's software they're you.

Phone companies view all these tactics as illegal but that doesn't help you.

Tell you what: here's one more reason not to bank or pay bills online, regardless of how hard you're pushed to do so.

People can go to places like bestpeoplesearch.com, Locatecell.com or many others and blow your privacy apart.


Here's the Post story.

    Online Data Gets Personal: Cell Phone Records for Sale

    They're not just after your credit card or Social Security numbers.

    Fueled by the ease of online commerce, snoops are on the trail of other personal information, too.

    One of the hottest markets: records of phone calls, especially from cell phones.

    A tool long used by law enforcement and private investigators to help locate criminals or debt-skippers, phone records are a part of the sea of personal data routinely bought and sold online in an Internet-driven, I-can-find-out-anything-about-you world.

    Legal experts say many of the methods for acquiring such information are illegal, but they receive scant attention from authorities.

    Think your mate is cheating? For $110, Locatecell.com will provide you with the outgoing calls from his or her cell phone for the last billing cycle, up to 100 calls.

    All you need to supply is the name, address and the number for the phone you want to trace. Order online, and get results within hours.

    Carlos F. Anderson, a licensed private investigator in Florida, offers a similar service for $165, for all major telephone carriers.

    "This report provides all the calls with dates, times, and duration on the billing statement," according to Anderson's Web site, which adds, "Incoming Calls and Call Location are provided if available."

    Learning who someone talked to on the phone cannot enable the kind of financial fraud made easier when a Social Security or credit card number is purloined. Instead, privacy advocates say, the intrusion is more personal.

    "This is a person's associations," said Daniel J. Solove, a George Washington University Law School professor who specializes in privacy issues.

    "Who their physicians are, are they seeing a psychiatrist, companies they do business with... it's a real wealth of data to find out the people that a person interacts with."

    Such records could be used by criminals, such as stalkers or abusive spouses trying to find victims.

    Unlike Social Security numbers, which are on many public documents that have been scooped up for years by data brokers, the only repository of telephone call records is the phone companies.

    Wireless carriers say they are aware that unauthorized people seek to get their customers' call records and sell them, but the companies say they take steps to prevent it.

    "There are probably 100 such sites" known to security officials at Verizon Wireless that offer to sell phone records, said Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman, who said Verizon is always trying to respond to abusive practices.

    He said that the company views all such activity as illegal and that "we have historically, and will continue to, change policies to reflect the changing nature of criminal activity," though he declined to be specific.

    Mark Siegel, a spokesman for Cingular Wireless, said his company constantly is on guard against people trying to get at customer information.

    But he called the acquisition of call records "an infinitesimally small problem" at his firm.

    Some experts in the field aren't so sure.

    "Information security by carriers to protect customer records is practically nonexistent and is routinely defeated," said Robert Douglas, a former private investigator and now a privacy consultant who has tracked the issue for several years.

    Experts say data brokers and private investigators who offer cell phone records for sale probably get them using one of three techniques.

    They might have someone on the inside at the carrier who sells the data.

    Spokesmen for the telephone companies said strict rules prohibiting such activity make this unlikely.

    But Joel Winston, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission's Financial Practices Division, said other types of data-theft investigations have shown that "finding someone on the inside to bribe is not that difficult."

    Another method is "pretexting," in which the data broker or investigator pretends to be the cell phone account holder and persuades the carrier's employees to release the information.

    The availability of Social Security numbers makes it easier to convince a customer service agent that the caller is the account holder.

    Finally, someone seeking call data can try to get access to consumer accounts online.

    Telephone companies, like other service firms, are encouraging their customers to manage their accounts over the Internet.

    Typically, the online capability is set up in advance, waiting to be activated by the customer. But many customers never do.

    If the person seeking the records can figure out how to activate online account management in the name of a real customer before that customer does, the call records are there for the taking.

    Federal law expressly prohibits pretexting for financial data -- which at one time was a primary means of stealing credit card and other account information -- but does not cover telephone records, which are covered by a patchwork of state and federal laws governing access to personal information.

    Some privacy advocates argue that the federal pretexting law needs to be broadened.

    At the very least, "there need to be audit trails to detect employee access to this personal information and a data retention schedule that mandates deletion of records" after a certain period of time, said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, West Coast director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

    The center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission yesterday against one data broker, Intelligent e-Commerce Inc. of Encinitas, Calif., saying it misrepresented its right to obtain the information.

    The firm, which operates the Web site http://www.bestpeoplesearch.com, advertises a variety of personal data for sale, including cell phone records.

    The company, which says on its Web site that it uses a licensed private investigator to get the information, said through its lawyer that it seeks to comply with all local, state and federal laws.

    Attorney Larry Slade said he does not know how the company acquires the phone records.

    Phone companies view all these tactics as illegal, even if they are used to help track down criminal activity.

    Instead, carriers say, they require court orders before releasing customer records.

    If someone uses pretexting to gain access to records, "these people are acting criminally, posing as someone they are not," Nelson said.

    He added that Verizon is preparing legal action against one data provider.

    The FTC views pretexting as a deceptive practice even without a specific ban on its use for telephone records, Winston said.

    But he said the agency has never taken such a case to court and does not know how widespread the problem is.

    He said the FTC must focus its resources on the practices of data thieves that can cause the most damage to large numbers of consumers, such as financial fraud.

    Many of the vendors of call records are unregulated data brokers, such as Data Find Solutions Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., which operates Locatecell.com.

    Company officials did not return calls seeking comment.

    At the Florida office of private investigator Anderson, a man who answered the phone and identified himself only as Mike said, "I don't really think we're going to reveal our sources" of phone records.

    "There's a lot of ways of doing it."

    At Reliatrace Locate Services of Wisconsin, a man who declined to give his name said only that his firm buys the data from another firm.

    There is active debate within the private investigator community about the propriety of getting phone records. In at least one online discussion group for the industry, some members defended the practice as legitimate while others said it was illegal, according to transcripts provided to The Washington Post.

    "I do not know of any legal way to obtain a person's telephonic history," Robert Townsend, head of the National Association of Legal Investigators, said in an interview.

    Townsend added that he thinks only a small minority of licensed investigators engage in the practice of acquiring and selling the data.

    July 8, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Solar Plant Rotator


    This solar–powered device turns plants 2 to 4 revolutions a day.

    From the website:

    You know you should turn your hanging pots every day; why not let the sun do it for you?

    Guaranteed symmetrical growth all around.

    Silent motor.

    Works in low to medium light.


    You hook the plastic–covered motor to any hanging basket up to 25 pounds and your plants will forever after get even sunlight distribution.

    Maree Gaetani of Gardener's Supply, in today's USA Today story by Sarah Bailey, said, "It solves the problem of a plant being burned by the sun on one side and not on the other."

    She continued, "If one side burns, the whole plant is ruined."


    Was $21.95; now on sale for $19.99 here.

    July 8, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    bookofjoe — The wristband


    Today's USA Today has a feature story by Jill Lieber about the rise of wristbands.

    It's a phenomenon, started by Lance Armstrong's yellow "Livestrong" and now with a life of its own.

    Never one to lead where I can follow, I've decided to hop on board the bandwagon.

    To that end I decided to investigate what it would take to create a bookofjoe wristband in my signature green.

    Well, one thing led to another and I happened upon a wonderful website.

    It's the entire Pantone Color Matching Chart: zillions of shades of every color.

    I appear to have found a good match in PMS 367 (below).


    What do you think?

    It's not precisely the same shade but it's very close.

    I don't think people would notice if the masthead of bookofjoe shuttled between the two, they're that similar.

    But I could be wrong.

    Anyway, I'm going to look further into the subject of wristbands.

    Might be more fun than my own bookofjoe currency, yesterday's D.O.A. idea.

    Then there're the personalized postage stamps: I wonder if they only do pictures of people or if I could send up a picture of my masthead and have it made into official U.S. postage.

    This is a good assignment for the newest member of my crack research team, Ms. LWS.

    Welcome aboard!

    And don't forget to keep your lifejacket on at all times: you just never know around here.

    July 8, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    460 pictures of Charlottesville, Virginia


    I happened on the flickr page last evening.


    I recognize a lot of the places but none of the faces.


    I found the flickr page via Charlottesville Blogs, another website I stumbled upon recently.


    Imagine my surprise at its existence: at the time I first visited, a couple weeks ago, there were only ten or so blogs on it.


    There is no end of surprises in cyberspace.

    July 8, 2005 at 01:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    See me, feel me, touch me, heal me


    Today marks the first time I have ever listened to "Tommy" from start to finish.


    What brought me to this wonderful juncture was listening to the June 19 KCRW radio interview with Petra Haden.

    In the course of the interview the interviewer would play tracks from "Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out" as well various snippets from other albums by The Who.

    One of the tracks was introduced as the "Underture" from "Tommy."


    That's a great word.

    And then the music from the Underture itself: pounding, powerful drums and bass that bores directly into your amygdala — better get the album and have a listen.

    Done; doing it.

    Oh, man, what a great, great album.

    Many songs I've known and loved for years are there but the whole thing is far greater than the sum of its parts.

    And that 10:09–long track 10, the Underture: woowoo.

    Track 15, "Go To The Mirror, Boy!" — I've always known that song by its refrain, "listening to you...."

    The lyrics for the entire album, all 24 tracks, are superb.

    Best $12.99 I've spent this month.

    On repeat for the rest of today and probably all weekend: maximum volume, if you please: shake this house and bring the roof crashing down on me.

    What a great way to go.

    July 8, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Best sign of the year


    You know you want it.

    Pink and white painted metal.

    18" x 12".

    $24.98 here.

    Because — to paraphrase L'Oreal from back in the day — "You're worth it."

    July 8, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Pretzel Purge at US Airways


    Yesterday it hit all the wires: US Airways is going to discontinue offering free pretzels beginning in September.

    Plan on scheduling as many flights as possible on the airline before they pull the snacks.

    You knew it would happen: the only question was, when?

    And now we have our answer.

    US Airways says the move will save over $1 million a year.

    Like Delta, US Airways plans — at least for now — to continue offering free juice and soda.

    But don't count on that lasting.

    David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, was quoted in yesterday's Wall Street Journal story on the latest belt–tightening as saying, "Passengers are not driven by whether there are pretzels there or no pretzels there."

    Is it any wonder that Mr. Stempler finds himself in a position of such authority with insights as keen as that?

    Next thing you know he'll be telling us that of course you don't have to take off your shoes before going through security.

    Just because not doing so automatically consigns you to a full–body patdown and search doesn't mean you have to.

    But there remains a ray of hope in the yeasty air: America West Airlines says it will continue to serve free pretzels and, if you prefer, peanuts.

    However, there's some bad news as well: America West and US Airways are hoping to merge.

    The Journal story quoted an America West spokesman as saying "the airlines had not yet solved the pretzel predicament because they're focused on bigger issues."

    Here's a link to a more detailed look at the story from yesterday's Pittsburgh Post–Gazette.


    I love the paper's sub–head:

      Another frill is gone

    July 8, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Chocolate–Covered Sunflower Seeds


    They come in seven colors: green, blue, orange, yellow, red, purple, or pink.


    Might be fun to see if birds like them.


    $6 for 4 oz.; $10 for 8 oz. here.

    July 8, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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