BE STINGY WITH GIVING OUT YOUR CELLPHONE NUMBER
PETROW: A PRIVATE EYE FOUND 150 PAGES ON ME
Our cellphone numbers are increasingly used for identity theft, becoming the modern-day linchpin to most personal data. Now I know that firsthand. After reporting on how phone number identity theft had doubled last year and warnings about how cellphone numbers are being used as the new Social Security numbers, I wanted to see how much was at stake.
I gave my cellphone number to private investigator Thomas Martin, a former federal agent and now president of Martin Investigative Services in Newport Beach, Calif., and asked him to do his thing. A few days later, a 150plus-page dossier arrived.
“We didn’t even scratch the surface,” Martin told me.
Starting with just my cellphone number, Martin had obtained my full name, Social Security number and date of birth. Then came my home address — and every address I’ve had since college. How much I’d paid for my house, the amount of my mortgage, my annual property taxes, even my driver’s license number and the Vehicle Identification Number of my car — all in there. The pièce de résistance: a financial overview that includes bankruptcies, liens, foreclosures and judgments. (I didn’t have any.)
Martin also put together a list of my social media pages. In the interest of time, he did not do a detailed search but easily could have; employers regularly engage the company to do just that about new recruits and employees. “If you’re on porn sites, we’re probably going to find it,” he said.
In his search, which he told me was completely legal, Martin could determine if I had any hunting and weapon permits and whether I was on a global watch list. My dossier included significant information about “possible relatives” and “likely associates.” That would be my parents, my siblings plus their spouses and kids, other family members, and neighbors. There was information about the mother of one of my sisters-in-law, a woman who died 15 years ago. The search retrieved information about this distant relative back to 1975.
I also spoke with Eric Vanderburg, director of information systems and security at Jurinnov LLC, a data security firm for the legal and business communities. I wanted his take on the data Martin found.
“Once a phone number is included in this digital information trail, it becomes part of the package and can be used to find all the other information about that person,” he said. “That information is available to anyone who wants it at a cost.”
Martin told me his services start as low as $350 to verify identity, with full searches like mine usually costing $950. (Disclosure: Martin did not charge USA TODAY for the cost of my search.)
Fortunately, the federal Privacy Act of 1974, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and some state laws provide a bit of shade to some personal data. My tax returns weren’t in the dossier, and because federal law prohibits the release of educational information, the packet included nothing about my schooling.
But everything in those pages was discovered legally. Martin was playing by the rules, but bad guys don’t. Vanderburg said criminals “maintain (their own) databases of information on potential targets” because purchasing the information would leave a paper trail.
These databases, Vanderburg said, may contain information that is illegal to collect, “such as former or current passwords, explicit photos, personal data files, contact lists and more.”
And the core of all this is your cellphone.
“I could never get your social media stuff with just your Social Security number,” Martin said, because users aren’t asked to provide it when setting up new accounts. We are, however, asked for our phone numbers, which is why certain indexes are only tied to the cellphone number.