Pubdate:  Mon, 15 Sep 1997
Source:   New York Times
Contact: HighTech Sleuths Find Private Facts Online


On the night of Oct. 8, 1992, the towering pipes of the
Texaco refinery in Wilmington, Calif., vented a sudden rise
in pressure. Then the familiar hiss became a deafening
screech, and a fiery explosion sent hundreds fleeing in
panic from the poor Hispanic community that lies in the
refinery's shadow. The fire burned for three days, filling
the air with chemical fumes as far as five miles away.
Eventually more than 4,700 propertydamage claims and 14,000
claims of personal injury were filed against Texaco.

Soon after the blast, Texaco hired a private detective to
investigate. But his mission was not to investigate the
causes of the explosion; it was to investigate the claimants
and lawyers whose classaction lawsuits threatened to cost
Texaco millions of dollars in damages.

The nearly fiveyear investigation the detective unleashed
offers a powerful illustration of the world of computer
technology and information marketing that has turned private
detectives into a vanguard of privacy invasion.

Through commercial data bases unknown to most citizens, law
enforcement computer files that are supposed to be off
limits to civilians, electronic surveillance equipment
readily sold in spy shops, and simple telephone scams common
in the information underground, Texaco's private eye quickly
amassed sensitive knowledge about dozens of people involved
in the explosion claims, according to court documents,
interviews and sworn statements.

One claimant, a 23yearold mother named Rossana Rivera, was
frightened to learn that the investigator had generated a
fivepage computer printout from her name alone.

The private eye had found her Social Security number, date
of birth, every address where she had ever lived, the names
and telephone numbers of past and present neighbors, even
the number of bedrooms in a house she had inherited, her
welfare history, and the work histories of her children's

And his probe unearthed two delinquent traffic tickets,
which the investigator then used to threaten her with arrest
if she did not provide  or fabricate  damaging
information about lawyers in the case, according to sworn
statements she gave last year.

At a time of growing public alarm over the erosion of
privacy by technology and data commerce, electronic dossiers
have become the common currency of computerage sleuths, and
a semiunderground information market offers them much more:
private telephone records, creditcard bills, airline travel
records, even medical histories.

Web sites with names like Dig Dirt and WeSpy4U sell unlisted
telephone numbers for $69 and bankaccount numbers for $55,
and they offer to trace a beeper number to the owner's
address for $59, though these searches do not always work.
Finding out a person's salary costs $75, and a list of
someone's stocks, bonds and mutual funds is $200 from one
New Jersey information broker who offers volume discounts.

Private investigators have always followed the footsteps of
people's personal lives. But in the past five years the
growing power of computers and the expansion of commercial
data bases have made it quicker, cheaper and easier than
ever for private eyes to collect individualized information
that their gumshoe predecessors could not piece together
even through weeks of dogged surveillance and research.

The result is more time, money and pressure to produce
nonpublic information from a thriving graytoblack market
in purloined privacy.

"The amount of information available at the push of a button
has just revolutionized the whole privateinvestigation
industry," said Jason Rowe, an investigator who frequently
works on behalf of plaintiffs against large corporations.
Even to the sleuths who benefit, he added, "it's a little
bit frightening."

"Everything you want to know is for sale," Rowe said flatly.
"It's a question of how much risk you want to take and what
your personal morals are."

Cases that highlight privacy intrusion by private
investigators include some that have been well publicized,
like the undercover operation that Wackenhut Corp., a
worldwide security company, mounted in the early 1990s
against Charles Hamel.

Hamel, an oilindustry critic, had given Congress and the
media internal evidence of corrosion in the TransAlaska
Pipeline, run by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. To identify
his sources and try to engineer his arrest, investigators
working for Alyeska ran a computer search of his telephone
records and those of Alyeska employees and obtained a copy
of a computer program he was using to compile evidence.

Other cases, culled from legal records and more than 100
interviews around the United States, have received little or
no public attention.

Food Lion Corp., for example, this year won damages for
trespass after ABC News reporters secured jobs at its stores
to film a report about sales of spoiled meat. But
unpublicized is the fact that the food company itself,
through private investigators working for its law firm 
Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld  secretly acquired the
private telephone records and credit information of former
employees and potential witnesses, court records show.

In the Texaco case, one of the claimants' lawyers, Duffy
Buchanan, and residents of Wilmington have filed separate
lawsuits accusing the private investigator, Christopher
Coombs, and his corporate backers of violating their privacy
and other civil rights as part of a strategy to sabotage the
explosion claims.

Buchanan's complaint charges that Coombs, who reported
directly to Texaco's law firm, Dewey Ballantine, illegally
bugged his law office, enlisted or extorted false
accusations against him, stole a computer list of claimants
and maliciously engineered his indictment for an obscure
insurancecode violation, forcing him out of the explosion

By the time Buchanan was acquitted in March, his career and
the remaining classaction lawsuits were in shambles. Some
claims have been dropped or settled; about 9,000 are still
outstanding, including cases as diverse as a woman who
needed a lung transplant and blamed the explosion, and
children who complained of burst eardrums, worsened asthma
or emotional distress.

Coombs and Dewey Ballantine declined to discuss the case. A
spokeswoman for Texaco, Barbara Kornylo, said she could not
comment on Coombs, adding, "Texaco believes that the lawsuit
that was brought against the company by Buchanan is
frivolous and without merit."

Because the claimants' civilrights action was filed only
last Friday, the company has not yet reviewed it.

In earlier court papers, Texaco maintained that it had hired
the private eye in selfdefense, to check out suspicions of
insurance fraud after widespread improprieties in the way
claimants were signed up before Buchanan joined the case,
such as doortodoor canvassing by paralegals.

Company lawyers also say that the private investigator is
protected from Buchanan's suit because Coombs had probable
cause to believe that Buchanan had violated the law, and he
told the authorities.

The Information Industry

Buying Public Records and Private Facts

The Texaco case points to farreaching changes driving the
private investigations industry, and to the rise of a new
kind of information combat, waged with vast computer
arsenals of personal data.

Cashstrapped governments are selling digitized public
records to a new generation of commercial database
companies. Illinois, for example, now makes $10 million a
year from the sale of public records, and Rhode Island
prices its motorvehicle records alone at $9.7 million.
Other records that are for sale range from realestate
filings that list the number of bedrooms in a house and its
last sale price, to divorces and bankruptcies.

Thus, personal details that used to lie in musty courthouse
files  from financial holdings to a messy divorce or a
youthful bout with the law  can now be uncovered from
almost any place in the country by means of a computer.

Companies like DBTOnline, started in 1992, constantly
collect such data from across the country and use powerful
new software to mix and match the scattered bits of

With a product called "Faces of the Nation," for example,
DBTOnline allows its 20,000 users  private eyes,
insurance agents, bill collectors and journalists  to type
in a name and get back the matching Social Security number,
date of birth and telephone number in less than three
minutes, for about $1.50, billed to a subscriber account.

For a few minutes and a few dollars more, the computer
screen fills with other personal details: past and current
addresses, names and telephone numbers of neighbors, names
and Social Security numbers of relatives, inlaws and
business associates, civil judgments and propertytax

Governments are also sharing more confidential data with
companies that now manage childsupport enforcement, prisons
and welfare benefits.

Thousands of former police officers, retired agents of the
FBI and former Cold War spies fill the ranks of an estimated
65,000 private investigators, helping to create an oldbuddy
network that makes access to other restricted government
computer data, such as arrest records, increasingly

And a growing cadre of information brokers are using
deception, bribery or computer hacking to raid more private
stockpiles of data from employee computer terminals in
telephone companies, banks and insurance offices.

The biggest customers in this marketplace include companies
locked in hardball litigation or highstakes business
conflicts that are looking for ammunition against their
adversaries  or just screening job applicants.

"The buying and selling of information is just a huge
business," said Charles McKenna, a deputy U.S. attorney in
New Jersey who in the early 1990s prosecuted information
brokers and government employees who sold data from Social
Security Administration computers and the National Crime
Information Computer database.

Once mainly the province of retired police officers in tiny
offices, the investigations industry is now a booming global
business swept by mergers and acquisitions, with revenue
projected to reach $4.6 billion by the year 2000, or nearly
quintuple 1980 levels.

Practitioners range from large, bluechip business
investigation firms like Kroll Associates to upstart Web
sites that offer anybody's secrets at bargain rates. They
all benefit from huge loopholes in the nation's patchwork
privacy laws that make the lines between legal and illicit
data hard to discern  or easy to ignore  by the time a
piece of information has passed through several hands.

"That's why lawyers hire private investigators  it's
willful blindness on their part," McKenna said. "They don't
want to be directly involved in the chain; that's why
they're willing to pay so much."

Information, like money, can be laundered. In the Food Lion
case, for example, lawyers from its Washington law firm
admitted that private telephone records had been secured
through an information broker hired by Stadler Co., its
private investigation agency in Houston. But everyone denied
knowing how it had been done.

One of the victims, Larry Cordts, a former manager for Food
Lion with an agediscrimination complaint, had a pretty good
idea. A stranger impersonating him had called AT&T from
Texas, saying he was out of town for several weeks and
needed a copy of his telephone bills. Checking customer
service records, AT&T discovered similar ruses had been used
twice before to fraudulently obtain Cordts' phone records.

Even if the targets of such scrutiny find out, redress is an
uphill fight under laws that sometimes seem better designed
to protect the privacy of corporations than of individuals.

In the Food Lion case, Cordts' lawyer had been shocked to
discover Stadler's name on her own credit report. When she
called the credit bureau, she wrote in an affidavit, "I was
told that Stadler accessed my credit file for the stated
reason that I had applied for a mortgage with Stadler
Company." She had not.

But when she and ABC's lawyers tried to learn more, the food
company said the matter was confidential under lawyerclient
privilege. Though the presiding magistrate said he was
"gravely concerned" about the telephone records, he said he
had no jurisdiction.

As for the credit inquiries, he accepted Food Lion's
contention that Stadler had not obtained actual credit
history information on witnesses, but "only 'header'
information consisting of name, address, Social Security
number, employment and the like."

The revolution in information technology can also arm David
against Goliath, helping ordinary people collect judgments,
track deadbeat parents, or uncover political corruption.

The press itself has used commercial data bases with names
like People Finder and Auto Track to inform the public,
whether by tracing campaign contributors involved in finance
scandals, or by locating relatives of people killed in the
Oklahoma City bombing.

But critics see public perils in a private investigations
industry that can simultaneously leverage ties to law
enforcement and tap an underground market in illicit
information on behalf of clients as diverse as spurned
lovers and the lawyers of powerful corporations.

In the Texaco case, the private investigator, Coombs, hired
moonlighting police officers who surreptitiously tapped into
police data bases full of unverified arrest records, and
used the information to intimidate claimants who came to
collect modest settlement checks, according to sworn
statements by Roy Alvarado and Rosanna Perez, residents who
once worked for the private eye but are now suing him.

Relying largely on information generated by Coombs,
investigators from the Los Angeles district attorney's
office seized more than 2,000 claimant medical records and
legal files from the offices and homes of six plaintiffs'
lawyers in a search for insurance fraud, court records show.
They found no evidence to prosecute, but the seizures
delayed many of the explosion claims to the point of

A halting legal process still has not forced Texaco to
answer plaintiffs' questions about the explosion, which
occurred three months after the company ignored official
warnings to inspect its pipes for corrosion that had caused
three refinery fires elsewhere, state inspectors found.

"They were so far in trying to dig up dirt on people, it got
to the point where I could not go to sleep at night,"
Alvarado said. "Wow, if they can do this to an attorney, can
you imagine what they can do to a simple person?"

The Privacy Thief

Posing as Another to Get Information

Allen Schweitzer was earning $1,000 a day as an information
broker when he was arrested in December 1991 in a national
investigation that was billed as a major blow for privacy.
But from Boulder, Colo., the socalled godfather of
information brokerage sees a business that is bigger and
bolder than ever.

As enormous amounts of personal detail have become legally
available at the push of a button, there is even greater
competition for the more private kind of data.

"Now it isn't just retired FBI agents or excops," said
Schweitzer, who pleaded guilty to buying earnings
information from a Social Security Administration data bank.
"Now every Tom, Dick and Harry has a Web page offering this

The Web page of Advanced Research Inc. advertises long
distance toll records, cellularcall records, bankaccount
balances, creditcard activity, and up to 10 years of
medicaltreatment history. In a mailing to private
investigators, the same company quotes prices that range
from $80 for someone's longdistance records to $400 for 10
years of medicaltreatment history.

Where does such information come from?

"I'm not at liberty to say," said Mike Martin, the private
investigator who operates Advanced Research out of a post
office box in Parsippany, N.J.

But Schweitzer said he has little doubt about its origins.

Armed with little more than a stranger's Social Security
number, an unscrupulous information broker can assume that
stranger's identity in a call to one of the clerks who sit
at computers all over the United States. Fed a plausible
story and the key information to verify identity, Schweitzer
said, helpful clerks will read information aloud.

In the trade, this is known as "pretexting," and it is a
major source of illicitly gained information bought and
resold by private eyes, some far removed from the source.

"I can get anything I want to know about you by being you,"
said Schweitzer, who served six months in prison and says he
now has a legitimate job as a telecommunications salesman.

Before, one of Schweitzer's favorite ploys was to call the
customerservice line at a creditcard company with a
sheepish tale about a domestic tiff. His wife had left home
with his credit card 10 days ago, he would say, after
identifying himself by his target's name. He did not want to
report the card stolen, but would like to know if she was
sending him to the poorhouse. Almost invariably, he said,
his target's latest transactions would then be read aloud.

Schweitzer estimates that 1,000 private eyes, most of them
former lawenforcement officers, requested and resold what
he acquired, with the price increasing as much as fivefold.

Schweitzer also supplied supermarket tabloids with the
unlisted numbers, telephone records and private retreats of
celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts.

The government, Schweitzer contends, is not serious about
stopping the underground information market.

"They've never gone after a single corporate client," he
complained. "As long as corporate America continues to ask
for it and pay for it, there will be people willing to get

The Corporate Link

Companies Rely on Data Moles

At the upper end of a business that still abounds in solo
practitioners with dubious credentials are large agencies
that have helped make private investigation an accepted
feature of corporate life. As a kind of preemptive paranoia
escalates, pinstriped sleuths in thickly carpeted suites
package their keyboard skills for foreign governments,
global corporations and national politicians.

In a 1997 New Year's letter to "friends and clients" of
Investigative Group International Inc., one of the best
connected Washington investigative agencies, the chairman,
Terry Lenzner, noted "increasing interest by clients seeking
to protect themselves from negative campaigns," including
those by "socalled 'whistleblowers,"' unions and
regulatory agencies.

An IGI division called "Campaign Facts Inc.," created two
years ago, offers not only to dig for dirt on an adversary,
but to find out what damaging information political
enemies  or nosy reporters  might discover about clients
and their associates.

The promotion brochure features veteran investigative
reporters who now work for IGI. Their role adds a new
dimension to the longrevolving door between law enforcement
and private investigations. IGI's staff, for example,
includes former top officials of the Drug Enforcement
Administration, the FBI and Germany's national police force.

Meanwhile, Ray Kelly, who had been chief of police in New
York City before joining IGI to run its New York operations,
now heads the Secret Service, the Bureau of Customs and the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Such ties, along with IGI's assignment from the Democratic
National Committee to probe its campaignfinance mess,
inspire some critics to liken it to President Clinton's
private CIA  a characterization that Lenzner, who was a
lawyer for the Senate Watergate committee, vigorously

But the impact of the private investigations revolution is
being felt at the other end of the spectrum, too.

In divorce cases, for example, local telephone records are
so useful for ferreting out secret lovers and hidden assets
that it is now "de rigeur" to hire a private investigator to
get them, a veteran divorce lawyer in New York City said,
speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Insurance claimants are increasingly likely to be
scrutinized electronically, first through a pooled industry
data base of billions of claim records that can be searched
for patterns suggesting fraud, and then through video
surveillance, which is more affordable now that computerized
witness location and background checks are quick and cheap.

Such information, including medicaltreatment details, is
increasingly traded between insurancefraud investigators
and lawenforcement agents, who have granted the National
Insurance Crime Bureau, an insurance industry consortium,
online access to the raw arrest data contained in the
National Crime Information Computer.

And investigators willing to skirt the law can buy
telephonetapping devices at swap meets or under the
counter, including a bug that can be attached to the
telephone line outside the target's house that will transmit
telephone conversations to a receiver in a car radio nearby.

Twentyone Spy Factory stores in 12 states were shut down in
1995 for illegally importing and selling such electronic
eavesdropping equipment, but similar listening devices are
widely available.

"The days of protecting your privacy are over," said Al
Zaretz, an investigator in New York, who once obtained a
man's photograph for a woman who wanted to use it in a
Santeria ceremony. "There's nothing you can't find out. If
you can't buy the information, you find out enough about the
other person where you extort the rest of the information
out of them."

The Investigator

Training the Lens on the Private Eye

On a highrise Santa Monica, Calif., law office with a
sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean, lawyers for Texaco and
for Christopher Coombs gathered last month to videotape the
deposition of Duffy Buchanan in his civilrights lawsuit
against the company and its private eye. The ammunition
inside their legal folders included computerculled details
about Buchanan's life.

Coombs, the private investigator who helped supply these
details, watched behind dark sunglasses. He looked like a
character in a Raymond Chandler mystery: heavyset, his head
shaved, with a prosthetic right arm ending in a mechanical

On another floor of the same building, Buchanan's subleased
office looked forlorn: He had to move out by week's end,
unable to pay the rent or his secretary's salary. During the
two and a half years between his arrest and his acquittal on
an insurancecode violation that he says Texaco engineered,
his practice fell apart.

But Buchanan has tried to turn the tables.

After Coombs interviewed Buchanan's exwife, Buchanan
discovered that Coombs was himself going through a divorce.
In an affidavit in the divorce file, the detective's
estranged wife said that that he had admitted an addiction
to prescription pain killers. She attached a computer
printout of the drug purchases from their insurer. Coombs
lost his arm 10 years ago, she attested, when a bomb he was
making for use in marlin fishing exploded in his hand.

In the end, it was an electronic database search in New
York that helped this reporter track the private eye himself
to an industrial park in Westlake Village, an upscale suburb
about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Coombs came to the
door of his office unshaven, in shorts, Tshirt and sandals.
He congratulated the reporter on finding him.

Texaco's lawyers had advised him not to talk, he said. Then
he added, "I'm very proud of the work I do."

Behind him could be glimpsed the tools of his trade: an open
file cabinet, a telephone and a computer.