An Internet information broker is under a court order to stop advertising and selling consumer telephone records to third parties without the consumers' knowledge or consent.
In addition to the cease-and-desist order, Judge William F. Downes ordered AccuSearch, doing business as Abika.com, and its principal, Jay Patel, to return almost $200,000 made on selling the phone records and to fully inform consumers' whose telephone numbers were sold.
According to the FTC complaint, AccuSearch advertised on its Web site that AccuSearch could obtain the confidential phone records of any individual-including details of outgoing and incoming calls-and make that information available to clients for a fee.
The information is not legally available to the public. To obtain the data, the FTC claims AccuSearch used "false pretenses, fraudulent statements, fraudulent or stolen documents or other misrepresentations, including posing as a customer of a telecommunications carrier," to hoodwink telecommunications carriers to disclose the confidential records.
Known as pretexting, the illegal practice received widespread publicity in 2006 when officials from Hewlett-Packard admitted before a U.S. House investigative panel that HP had illegally obtained the phone records of board members and reporters through pretexting. HP obtained the telephone numbers as part of an in-house investigation of boardroom leaks to the media.
The FTC originally won action against AccuSearch in September, but the defendants appealed the decision. Downes' in his Jan. 28 order upheld the FTC, stating AccuSearch's actions were "necessarily accomplished through illegal means."
Downes further found AccuSearch caused substantial injury to consumers by exposing them to health and safety risks, including threats from stalkers and abusers. He also cited economic harm associated with changing telephone carriers and upgrading security on their consumer accounts. The court concluded that consumers had no way to avoid these harms.
"In fact," Downes ruled, "the evidence presented before the court indicates that confidential consumer phone records were sold through Abika.com despite considerable efforts by consumers to maintain the privacy of those records."
AccuSearch officials plan to appeal the decision.