The Case of the Missing License

Congress is putting on the squeeze, but Colorado's private investigators still can't agree how -- or if -- they should be regulated.

When summoned on June 22 to testify before Congress about data security, both Welker and Strange took the Fifth. Welker didn't respond to an interview request, but he has said that he no longer offers cell-phone records for sale. Strange and his attorney say he's now out of the data-broker business entirely, except for a court-document retrieval service. Worldwide Investigations, Strange's Denver private-eye agency, is also defunct.

Privately, other data brokers say that many of the services are merely retailing information obtained from other sources. Some refuse to deal with private investigators; others will sell to anyone. Few seemed convinced that the proposed legislative crackdown will make it through a Republican Congress. "There's too many large financial companies that want this information available," says one.


"Then I'm just another citizen again?"

"That's right, with no license and no gun. Nor will you ever have one again."

"Are you booking me for anything?"

"I can't very well. I wish I could."

He must have read what was coming in the lopsided grin I gave him because he got red from his collar up. "For a D.A. you're a pain in the behind," I said. "If it wasn't for me the papers would have run you in the comic section long ago."

"That will be enough, Mr. Hammer!"

-- Mickey Spillane, Vengeance Is Mine!

Public outrage over pretexting has prompted numerous efforts to expand existing laws against criminal impersonation. Most of the proposed laws would make it a crime to pretend to be someone else to obtain a wide range of personal information. The movement could have far-reaching implications, not only for private investigators, but for journalists and other sometimes-covert information-gatherers. One such bill in California is opposed by groups representing the recording and movie industries, which say they need to be able to conduct undercover operations to thwart music and video piracy.

"It is totally necessary to use subterfuge on many investigations," says the NCISS's McClain. "You can't just go up to a crook and tell him you're a private investigator and ask what he's doing. I'd say 95 percent of the work we do is covert. You don't reveal who you are."

Local investigator Ryan Ross says he's more likely to use "non-texting" -- simply not identifying himself as a private investigator -- than outright deception. He adds that many aspects of the work require pretexts that don't involve extracting financial data or Social Security numbers; for example, allowing an employer to think you're a bureaucrat calling to update some records when you're really trying to confirm whether a certain person works there.

"It's not illegal," he notes. "Private investigators don't, as a rule, represent themselves as law enforcement. But if you say you're a private investigator, a citizen might hang up on you."

Like many of his colleagues, Ross sees the outrage over leaked cell-phone records as misplaced. "The problem is with the Verizons and the T-Mobiles of the world, who won't take the steps they need to protect their customers," he says. "They don't train their people adequately to protect their own data."

And private sleuths are hardly the only threat to the security of corporate America's data warehouses. Even super-pretexters such as Rapp are mere pikers compared to the snoops in the Bush administration. Last month, while lawmakers in Washington lamented the loss of personal privacy at the hands of a few money-hungry data brokers, a judge in San Francisco ruled that a privacy group's lawsuit could proceed against AT&T for allegedly supplying customer phone records and e-mails to the National Security Agency. The domestic surveillance program reportedly encompasses several major telecoms -- AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth -- and hundreds of millions of phone records.

When it comes to rifling through the love letters, phone bills and electronic garbage of American citizens in search of the great maguffin, nobody beats Uncle Sam. Nobody.


The contempt was still strong in her voice. "You don't care how you get results, do you? Blackmail, threats -- the works. Just so you can earn your stinking whatever-it-amounts-to a day."

"I do my job," I said, my voice dull in my ears. "Make up your mind, Mrs. O'Flynn. Do I get what I want from you the easy way or do I have to use the cops as a club? You've done a lot of slick yammering about ratting on friends. I say at least one of your friends is a killer and needs to be ratted on. Which is it going to be, you or her?"

-- Howard Browne, Halo in Brass

Rick Johnson envisions a day when every private investigator who walks the mean streets of Denver, Dacono or Durango does so with a state-issued license in his pocket. Ideally, the licensed P.I. will have a rudimentary understanding of trespassing and privacy law and proper surveillance techniques; enough training and experience not to hand over the address of a battered women's shelter to an angry ex-boyfriend; and a proper reverence for the confidential nature of the trade.

The public will be better off that day, he says, and so will his profession. He figures the entire system will be a bargain once it's up and running.

"It will be largely self-regulating," he says. "A lot of private eyes will rat off other private eyes who aren't licensed. I guarantee it."

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