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Pretexting rebuffed

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In a victory for privacy advocates, a federal judge has ordered a US company to pay almost $200,000 and barred it from selling the phone records of individuals' phone records without their permission.

US District Judge William F. Downes of Wyoming entered a permanent injunction against a company called AccuSearch and its principal, Jay Patel. They advertised a service on a website called Abika-dot-com that made phone records of any individual available for a fee. Privacy watchdogs at the Federal Trade Commission filed suit in 2006, alleging the practice was illegal.

Downes agreed that the obtaining and selling of phone records without the owners' consent was necessarily accomplished through illegal means, according to this release from the FTC. He went on to say that the service represented a menace to consumers in the form of stalkers, identity thieves and costs of changing phone carriers.

Attempts to reach AccuSearch and Patel for comment were unsuccessful. The company has said it plans to appeal the ruling, according to court records.

The ruling comes two years after Hewlett-Packard spied on reporters and board members in an attempt to identify individuals who were leaking information to the media. Among the controversial steps taken was the practice of pretexting, in which investigators called phone companies and pretended to be reporters who wanted a copy of their phone bills.

The FTC has alleged that phone bills constitute confidential information. According to its lawsuit against AccuSearch, Abika-dot-com claimed it could acquire the phone records, including outgoing and incoming calls, of any individual. FTC attorneys argued that using false pretenses, fraudulent statements and fraudulent or stolen documents to induce carriers to disclose records was illegal.

Downes also shot down AccuSearch's claims that it had immunity under the US Communications Decent Act because it actively participated in the creation or development of the content on the Abika site.

AccuSearch was ordered to surrender $199,692 in sales earned from the record sales. ®

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