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Pretexting PIs–The Great Pretenders Or Not?

Posted by Bill on December 8, 2007

Remember The Platters?  They were popular in the 1950s, and they had this great song called “The Great Pretender.”  Keep in mind the lyrics “Oh yes, I am the great pretender, adrift in a world of my own.”  

Well, we heard about the Seattle U.S. Attorney indicting ten private investigators in a “pretexting” case.–see prior post dated December 7.  It is important to note here that in its press release about the case the U.S. Attorney’s office said “The charges contained in the indictment are only allegations.  A person is presumed innocent unless and until he or she is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.”  See  Press Release.  So, the persons named in the indictment are not guilty unless found so by a jury.  The facts and statements in the indictment are only allegations, yet to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt which is the standard of proof required by due process.

Indictment

Now, I read the indictment–see prior post.  The indictment says that the proposed defendants used pretexts, or false pretenses to obtain “employment histories, wage information, income and asset information from various State Unemployment Insurance Departments, the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service, banks and other financial institutions.”  In addition, information was collected, allegedly, from hospitals and pharmacies.  Apparently, the alleged defendants would telephone the, oh, let’s take the I.R.S., for example, and tell the person answering the telephone that they needed tax information because “they recently fired their bookkeeper because of suspicions of impropriety.  This was needed, of course, to verify accuracy of the filings made by the fired bookkeeper according to the indictment.  Another alleged false story given to the I.R.S. was that the individual was at the hospital awaiting surgery, but the hospital would not perform the operation until they received copies of tax returns for verification of income.  The indictment says the alleged defendants falsely claimed hardships or made embarrassing assertions for the “purpose of distracting” the I.R.S. person from asking more questions about why the information was needed.  The hardships claimed included “being a battered spouse who needed the information to avoid more beatings; having a child abducted; and experiencing bankruptcy, foreclosure or serious illness.”

Now, the callers apparently called the I.R.S. in Chamblee, GA, Philadelphia, PA, Memphis, TN and Holtsville, NY.  I believe these may be I.R.S. Service Centers.  But, the service representative answering the phone must have believed the stories in some instances because such is alleged in the indictment.  As I read the indictment and ingested these “stories,” I thought to myself:  Would I believe these stories if I answered the I.R.S. telephone?  Gee, I don’t know, would you? 

Neither I nor PIAVA condone illegal pretexting. 

Security Loopholes 

Recently, the Wired Blog, Wired had their own story on this case.  In a different article, Wired wrote about how to protect yourself from pretexting, see Pretext Protection.  They suggested that companies who were subjected to pretexting tighten up security so as not to give our personal information.  Another organization, Electronic Privacy Information Center, EPIC, EPIC, stated that security standards had been “insufficient to prevent unauthorized third parties from acquiring and exploiting such data (telephone records) for personal and financial gain.”  EPIC called the situation a significant security loophole. 

So, perhaps, the various agencies in this case, and perhaps private business, should tighten up security to prevent personal information, such as involved in this case, from being given out to a telephone caller.  Does the I.R.S. train its employees to guard against pretext calls?  Do other agencies? Do private businesses do so?  I do not know, but they should.  Banks, Credit Bureaus, government agencies, telephone companies and other businesses should review security and training policies concerning information access and distribution. 

After all, Terry K. Peacock, Special Agent in Charge of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said in the U.S. Attorney’s press release:  “Citizens have the right to expect that their private information will be kept private, especially when it’s in the hands of the US Government.”   I agree, Terry. We can not all be “great pretenders, adrift in a world of our own.”

Bill Lowrance

President PIAVA

president@piava.org

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