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The sale of cellphone records over the Internet-a hot topic that recently spurred litigation, legislation and a federal investigation-has more than a few lawyers nervous. Attorneys are among the top customers of the controversial Web sites, according to private investigators, privacy advocates and Web site operators who sell the phone records. “Let’s put it this way, the legal profession is keeping it alive,” said Rob Douglas, a former private eye turned security consultant who has helped the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate and prosecute online operators that sell phone records. “I’ve investigated them with the federal government and in private lawsuits . . . and in every single case, the overwhelming majority of users of these companies are attorneys,” Douglas said. These attorneys include divorce lawyers, who want to know who feuding spouses are talking to; business lawyers, who want to know who their clients’ competitors are talking to; and employment lawyers, who want to know if employees are selling any trade secrets. The online data industry has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, triggering private lawsuits and federal and state investigations. In the last two weeks, four wireless carriers-Cingular, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile-have filed lawsuits against Web site operators for allegedly using trickery to obtain customers’ phone records. State attorneys general in Illinois and Missouri filed similar lawsuits against rogue Internet operators in January, while Texas said it was investigating such Web sites. Illinois v. First Information Specialist, No. 2006CH29 (Sangamon Co., Ill., Cir. Ct.). The FTC is investigating 40 Web sites that were named defendants in a complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington nonprofit privacy advocacy group. And on Capitol Hill, three lawmakers in recent weeks introduced bills to outlaw the sale of phone lists. The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing last week to determine how widespread the problem of cellphone data theft is, and whether or not the cellphone industry is doing enough to protect customers’ records from data burglars. Given all the controversy surrounding the sale of cellphone records, attorneys were reluctant to comment on the subject. Of the more than a dozen divorce, business and criminal defense attorneys contacted for this story, none said they used the tactic. Most wouldn’t even talk about the subject. One lawyer said, “Good luck finding anyone to admit to it.” Attorney Paul Murphy, a business litigator with Murphy Rosen & Cohen in Santa Monica, Calif., said he has sometimes used people-finder Web sites for as little as $10 a search to help locate potential witnesses involved in business disputes. But he never tried to get cellphone records, he said, adding that he was unaware that such Web sites even existed until about a month ago. “The interesting thing now is that other lawyers are being made aware of this,” Murphy said, noting that some attorneys might now be tempted to try it. “It can be a very valuable tool to try to get information to see who’s calling people . . . but it does concern me that this could violate people’s privacy.”
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