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.
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.