Attorney General Lockyer Files Lawsuit Against Data Trace USA for Illegally Obtaining and Selling Cell Phone Records
Complaint Seeks Restitution for Victims and At Least $10 Million in Civil Penalties
(SAN DIEGO) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer, in the first enforcement action resulting from his ongoing investigation into the sale of cell phone records, today filed a $10 million-plus lawsuit against Data Trace USA, Inc. (Data Trace) that alleges the firm unlawfully obtained and sold wireless customers’ confidential monthly call records.
“Data Trace has used fraudulent means to commit outrageous invasions of privacy against California cell phone users,” said Lockyer. “Unfortunately, this company is not alone. These shady operators are increasing in number. Californians’ privacy is not for sale. They have a right to expect that their confidential cell phone call records remain just that – confidential. Our investigation of this industry will continue. I’m committed to vigorously fighting this growing threat to privacy.”
The complaint alleges Data Trace and its director of operations, Ilia S. Nicholas, posed as cell phone customers, or agents of customers, to fraudulently obtain consumers’ monthly call records from wireless carriers. They then sold access to those records, and advertised their services on their web site, www.datatraceusa.com, according to the complaint. Nicholas has several aliases, and addresses in New York and Florida.
The defendants violated state laws that prohibit unfair business practices, and false or deceptive advertising, the complaint alleges. Specifically, the defendants misrepresented themselves to obtain the records, according to the complaint, and held out their services as legal, when in fact they were unlawful. Additionally, the complaint notes, the state Public Utilities Code and the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 protect the confidentiality of phone users’ call records.
The complaint, filed in San Diego County Superior Court, asks the court to issue an order stop the defendants’ unlawful business practices. The complaint also seeks restitution for consumers who suffered financial harm, and at least $10 million in civil penalties.
Investigators from Lockyer’s office contacted Data Trace and used an alias and credit card to order the cell phone records of a deputy attorney general. For $220, the investigators obtained not just a list of the calls, but also the time and duration of the calls. The investigation revealed that Data Trace employees accessed the Verizon Wireless web site, posed as the deputy attorney general, then created an online account through which they obtained the deputy attorney general’s call records for the past month.
Primary purchasers of cell phone records sold by Data Trace and similar businesses include spouses and ex-spouses, and institutional clients such as private investigators, debt collection agencies and major finance companies.
Internet sellers proliferated in recent years, creating a retail market for private cell phone records. Some online operations, however, have begun shutting down because of the glare of negative publicity and enforcement actions such as the one filed today by Lockyer.
But Lockyer and other law enforcement officials say the industry will thrive underground, where sellers will continue to operate a wholesale market that services institutional clients.