Up until about 2006, phone records could be easily obtained by a private investigator (or anyone with a credit card and Internet connection) for as little as $100 through various online vendors.  In order to obtain phone records, these services would typically use pretexting, where an individual would falsely identify themselves as the owner of the phone number in order to obtain confidential phone records.

Hewlett Packard Spy Scandal

Everything changed in 2006, when pretexting was thrown into the public spotlight. Hewlett Packard hired private investigators to find out who leaked confidential information to the media.  Using pretexting, the private investigators hired by Hewlett Packard falsely identified themselves as the owners of the phone number and were able to access private phone records of board members and nine journalists who covered the company without obtaining their permission.  Four private investigators were later criminally charged when felonies.

2007: Pretexting Becomes Federal Offense

When the Hewlett Packard scandal broke in late 2006, pretexting to obtain phone records was a bit of a legal gray area, but in January 2007, President Bush signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006, which makes it a federal felony to fraudulently acquire telephone records. While a private investigator can use legitimate tools to try to identify the telephone carrier for a particular phone number and may be able to use the legal system to get the phone records through a court order, obtaining phone records using deceit or without specific permission is a federal offense.

Final Thought

While pretexting is/was the most common way to get phone records, other ways to obtain phone records include hacking and good-old-fashioned bribery, but as their names might suggest, these are also against the law.  So unless you are the owner of the phone, you, or the person you have hired to get the phone records, are breaking federal and state statutes.

And if you think that you are insulated from fines or prosecution by sub-contracting the work out to someone else, think again – Hewlett Packard was fined $14.5 million and the Chairwoman and Chief Ethics Officer were criminally charged in the matter.

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4 replies
  1. Chris
    Chris says:

    @ Philip @ Jason (similar issues)
    Typically this sort of thing (and surveillance, GPS tracking, etc) fall under an “expectation of privacy” clause and are usually judged on a case-by-case basis.

    That is, with regards to cell phones for instance, texts can be recovered/uncovered through various means: digital forensics, key loggers, etc. In the case of married couples with joint accounts a spouse can, say, install a key logger or GPS tracker (sorry Jason). Therefore, it would be legally permissible for a spouse to install a GPS tracker on a jointly owned vehicle.

    In the case of a girlfriend, that’s patently illegal.

    Another way to visualize this issue is to think about video surveillance. I (or another PI) can’t push aside your blinds to shot video of you in your living room… However, if you’re standing naked in front of a picture window then all bets are off (there is no “reasonable” expectation of privacy in the latter case).

    @ Brian
    Back in the day we used to outsource this sort of work to Canadian agencies. While I’m not sure of the current legality, during a recent discussion an old colleague mentioned that Israelis and the Irish were still providing records…

    Best, Chris
    (Semi-retired Boston PI)

  2. Phillip
    Phillip says:

    My X girlfriend claims that she hired a private investigator to follow me for the last 6 months. No problem. But she also said that he collected 6 months of each text from my personal cell phone. is that legal?? If not, what actions can/should I take?

  3. Jason
    Jason says:


    Just wondering if two people SHARE a phone account…different numbers but same account…can one get the text messages for the other phone?

    Thank you

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