Police push photo ID requirement for prepaid phone cards
Victims in Chicago Police Detective Timothy J. Murphy’s homicide cases were leaving behind important clues — cell phones showing incoming calls just before the time of death.
But increasingly the calls led to numbers dialed by prepaid cellphone users and that’s a dead end, Detective Murphy explained in a letter sent nearly two years ago to state and federal lawmakers, because phone companies usually don’t maintain the identities of the phone buyers.
“In the last several months, many of my homicide investigations have been hindered due to the major obstruction that ‘prepay’ or ‘pay as you go’ cellular telephones that litter the market cause,” he wrote. “I am seeking your assistance in introducing legislation to regulate this loophole.” He’s still waiting. “Nobody did anything,” the eightyear veteran of the city’s homicide squad said in a phone interview two weeks ago.
While no bills are pending in Congress, legislation requiring photo identification for prepaid-phone purchases is beginning to surface in statehouses nationwide. The National Conference of State Legislatures is following bills in Michigan and Georgia. Lawmakers in New Jersey, Texas and Pennsylvania also have considered legislation.
“I just went out and got a new cell phone,” said Neil Cohen, a Democratic state assemblyman sponsoring a pending bill in New Jersey. “If I’ve got to produce a photo ID, I don’t think there should be a distinction for a prepaid phone.”
But privacy experts and telecommunications and retail groups question whether the bills will do anything to catch criminals.
“We’ve had some obvious concerns,” said Joe Farren, spokesman for Washington-based CTIA, the Wireless Association.
“You’ve got 255 million wireless phones in circulation right now. It’s going to be terribly difficult to prove whether someone is providing false identification,” Mr. Farren said, adding that wireless-phone carriers “work very closely” with law-enforcement authorities.
“The overwhelming number of wiretaps are on wireless lines,” he said.
Verizon Wireless spokesman John Johnson said the company does ask for photo identification when a customer wants to buy a prepaid cell phone, but Verizon doesn’t retain those records.
“It’s only to verify that the person is who he or she says,” said Mr. Johnson.
Privacy expert Katherine Al- brecht said such legislation raises fears about government intrusion on personal privacy. She also said that some people may need to use anonymous phone lines, including victims of stalking.
“There are some serious reasons you would want that ability,” she said.
Larry Frankel, state legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said the bills set a precedent for lawmakers to require identification to purchase other products.
“There are people who do bad things with every product,” Mr. Frankel said. “What’s the next item going to be?”
But Pennsylvania Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, a Democrat, said his bill only provides law-enforcement authorities with much needed crimefighting tool.
“The drug dealers are very smart, and they’ll get someone else to purchase the phones, but at least that still gives law enforcement a person to talk to,” said Mr. Pashinski, whose pending bill would require two forms of identification to buy prepaid cell phones with cash.
“The retailers and some of the phone companies are definitely going to put up a fight,” he said.
James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the nation’s largest law-enforcement union, said difficulty tracking down information on prepaid users can delay or even thwart investigations “from street-level drug dealers right up to terrorists.”
In 2006, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued nationwide bulletins telling police agencies to be on the look out for bulk purchases of prepaid cell phones. Authorities cited concern about possible terrorism links.
“If there’s legislation out there that would handle the problem fairly, I think we would support it,” Mr. Pasco said.
Detective Murphy said he sent letters to the FOP and state and federal lawmakers, including presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, who forwarded it to the Federal Communications Commission, saying he was “troubled by the issues raised by Detective Murphy.”
But a response from the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau told the detective what he already knew: “Wireless carriers typically do not receive or obtain detailed subscriber information from prepaid customers.”