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Mark Grossman

Pretexting Breaks Laws

6 December 2001

Have you noticed an increase in the number of online companies that claim they can find sensitive information on anybody? These companies say they can uncover hidden bank accounts, Social Security numbers, credit card balances--virtually any financial information on anybody.

But how do they do that? The answer: It's often something called "pretexting." And online investigators who use pretexting are breaking the law.

For the most part, your financial information is private. For example, unless I get your permission, I can't call up your credit card company and find out how much you owe on your credit card, or whether you even have a credit card. Even if I had the desire (or time) to find this out, the credit card company would never release this information to me.

On the other hand, there's a lot of information that I (or anyone else) can find out about you, all of which is public information. The county where you were born, for example, can tell me your full name, date of birth, and parents' names. Sometimes you give your personal information to the world without even realizing it. Your personal information that you provide to catalog companies, retailers and online stores is often up for grabs. However, in an effort to get even more sensitive information on their targets (and, subsequently, demand premium rates for their efforts) cyber-sleuths increasingly include a process called "pretexting" in their investigatory toolbox. Pretexting is the practice of getting another person's confidential information under false pretenses. Of course, cyber-sleuths don't advertise that they use pretexting. Instead, they make lofty claims that they can get highly confidential information on anybody by merely typing the subject's name into their database.

Don't you believe it. Despite the prevalence of supercomputers and broadband access, there is no single database that contains everyone's confidential information. Instead, many cyber-sleuths still get highly confidential information the old fashioned way -- through lies, impersonation and deceit. In a word, pretexting.

The bad news: Pretexting can lead to identity theft. With the information obtained, a malicious person can damage your credit rating, make purchases using your credit cards, even subject you to extortion.

The good news: To fight pretexting, a federal law called the Gramm Leach Bliley Act (often referred to as the GLB Act) was enacted. It prohibits a person from obtaining, or attempting to obtain, your financial information by making false, fictitious or fraudulent statements to your bank or other financial institution. It also prohibits someone from using lost, forged, counterfeit or stolen documents to get sensitive financial information.

More good news: The FTC actively enforces the GLB Act. For example, this past year, the FTC screened more than 1,000 websites, and identified almost 200 companies that offered to obtain and sell nonpublic, confidential financial information for fees ranging from $100 to $600. The FTC's website,, not only describes the FTC's efforts, but also offers helpful advice on how you can avoid becoming the victim of pretexting.

Pretexting Breaks Laws is republished from
Mark Grossman
Mark Grossman