What have you always wondered about the economy? Tell us

Congressional hearings on data brokers

John Dimsdale Jun 21, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: I saw this in the paper today. The Department of Veterans Affairs will pay for a year’s worth of credit monitoring for vets whose personal data was stolen. A disc with social security numbers and the like was taken from a department employee’s home last month.

Outright theft is just one way information can be lost. It is often bought and sold, too. A House subcommittee started hearings today on that very subject. Companies that collect your phone records and sell them on the open market. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale has more.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Data brokers insist they’re doing nothing illegal. But by calling telephone companies and claiming to be a customer, they can gain access to private records.

James Rapp, an aggressive data broker whose company used to earn over a million dollars a year, told committee members all you need is a social security number.

JAMES RAPP:“Once I have your soc, I call into VISA and I don’t even need to know the card number or even have it with me. They’re gonna tell me which bank it is. I can go back and acquire every call, every charge that you had the last 90 days.”

The technique was used on Adam Yuzuk. His phone history was routinely copied and sold by another data broker. And he thinks there ought to be a law.

ADAM YUZUK: Why is it that if you went to my mailbox and stole my cell phone records that is clearly illegal, but it’s OK to pretend to be me and then print out my information and sell it?

Earlier this spring, a House committee voted to outlaw the deceptive collection of telephone records, but the bill disappeared from the floor calendar on May 11. Committee member Janice Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, says at first she was mystified.

JANICE SCHAKOWSKY: But I felt less confused when eight days later the USA Today did break the story that the National Security Agency was acquiring the public’s phone records and thought well maybe that’s the reason why this bill became suddenly too sensitive.

Whether the practice is illegal or not, 11 data brokers pled the fifth amendment today and refused to answer committee questions.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.