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A privacy rights advocacy group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to examine whether websites advertising investigative services capable of digging up personal information such as phone call records are violating federal laws.
The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the federal agency Thursday, singling out Encinitas, Calif.-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.
The advocacy group contends that the company's services and those of hundreds of similar online investigation firms constitute unfair or deceptive business practices.
The website offers to find personal information on individuals including unlisted phone numbers and addresses, detailed phone records, employment history and motor vehicle data.
The firm also offers to identify the owner of a post-office box and to provide information on an individual's criminal records. A list on the website Friday of the firm's most popular searches included finding a person's name and address from the person's cellphone number and obtaining a list of calls made from a cell number.
"If you own a post-office box, your ownership of that is private. That information is being sold," Hoofnagle said. "Your land line and cellphone billing records are being offered for sale. These are also protected by statute."
Some services aggregate and resell information from public records such as listed phone numbers, addresses and, in states where it's allowed, driver's license records.
But the privacy rights group 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 posing as the targets of their searches 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.
Neither the FTC nor Intelligent E-Commerce returned requests for comment.