BE STINGY WITH GIV­ING OUT YOUR CELL­PHONE NUM­BER

PETROW: A PRI­VATE EYE FOUND 150 PAGES ON ME

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TECH - Steven Petrow USA TO­DAY colum­nist Steven Petrow of­fers ad­vice about liv­ing in the dig­i­tal age. Sub­mit your ques­tion via email to steven­petrow@gmail.com. You can also fol­low Petrow on Twit­ter: @Steven­Petrow. Or like him on Face­book at face­book.com/stevenp

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.

GETTY IM­AGES/IS­TOCK­PHOTO

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