Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pretexting,Private Eyes,and the Law

PINE BLUFFS ─ Pretexting ─ the practice of acquiring personal information of others by subterfuges, such as impersonation ─ has been very much in the news lately. When Mark Hurd, President, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chairman of the Board of Hewlett-Packard, took the witness stand before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations September 2006, he tearfully apologized for his company’s use of private detectives who employed this practice. Heretofore, Hewlett-Packard’s reputation in the public domain had been impeccable.

Labeled “The Hewlett-Packard Pretexting Scandal” by the media, the situation arose when it was discovered that H-P’s former Chairwoman, Patricia Dunn, attempting to track down the source of anonymous leaks of proprietary information by H-P insiders to reporters, hired a private detective firm, Security Outsourcing Solutions, Inc. (SOS), to investigate other members of the Board of Director, to find the source of the leaks. It also may have relied upon its own Global Investigations Unit, based in Boston. Overzealous, these agents of the company obtained reporters’ telephone records without permission, by impersonating journalists from the Wall Street Journal and other news organizations in the practice known as Pretexting. Predictably, when magazine and newspaper reporters realized that if their telephone records could be accessed by outsiders, it would be extremely difficult to keep their sources secret, a media frenzy ensued.

Never mind that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the media ─ specifically Television ─ had helped to make Pretexting respectable with its TV shows dealing with private investigators such as the charismatic James Garner playing likeable ex-con Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, David Janssen’s Harry O, who knew all the scams and wasn’t above using them, and Thomas Magnum of Magnum, P.I. While these TV series were running, nothing was heard from the media about violations of anyone’s rights to privacy.

Although not illegal back then, Pretexting is illegal now. In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act made it a crime to utter false or fraudulent statements for the purpose of obtaining information from a financial institution, a customer of a financial institution, or to ask another person to obtain this type of information for you.

Here’s another blatant situation, about which I’ll bet you haven’t heard. The perpetrator was a Democrat; the victim, a prominent Republican. During 2005 with the Maryland political situation heating up, Lauren B. Weiner, a former research associate for the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC)), pretended to be Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, thought to be the most-likely opponent of Congressman Ben Cardin (D-MD) in the upcoming race to replace retiring Democrat Senator Paul Sarbanes. Winning, you see, is everything to some people.

According to a Justice Department press release, Weiner conducted public records searches on Steele, discovered his social security number, and used it to obtain his credit report.

Major credit bureaus permit one to obtain a free copy of his or her own credit report online. Weiner approached Experian, but was stymied since it required Steele’s driver’s license, which she did not have. She then tried TransUnion. There she was able to set up a pass-word protected account and, using her DSCC computer, requested that Steele’s financial report be e-mailed to her Yahoo account, Her supervisor found out, reported it to the District Attorney’s office, and after an FBI investigation, Weiner was indicted.

An investigator does not have to lie, cheat or steal for a client. He can obtain much personal information on others in legitimate ways, because that information is out there. For example, if you’ve been divorced or named a party to a civil or criminal suit, your full name, home address, date of birth, the name of a former spouse, and your children, if any, are readily available to any investigator with the expertise to conduct a search.

Private Investigators DO have a professional Code of Ethics, and most of us attempt to live up to it as we go about our daily business. By calling attention to this illegal practice, hopefully it will disappear completely, before it claims any more victims.

Anthony J. Sacco, Sr., a licensed private investigator with 17 years of experience, writer, and author of two novels; The China Connection, and Little Sister Lost, holds degrees from Loyola College of Maryland and the University of Maryland Law School. His articles have appeared in the Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, Voices for the Unborn, the Catholic Review, WREN Magazine, and the Wyoming Catholic Register. His third book, a biography of Boston sports great, Guy Vitale, will be out soon. E-mail him at and visit his website at

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