Pubdate: Mon, 15 Sep 1997 Source: New York Times Contact: HighTech Sleuths Find Private Facts Online By NINA BERNSTEIN 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 fathers. 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 litigation. 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 information. 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 filings. 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 commonplace. 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 derailment. 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 stuff." 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 it." 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 rejects. 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 claw. 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.