A Private Investigator Explains the “Dark Arts” of Tabloid News | Murdoch’s Scandal | FRONTLINE | PBS
Hanks describes gaining access to a SSN as getting “the keys to the kingdom”: With an SSN, an investigator can locate even more information, such as relatives, property records, voter registration records, registered motor vehicles, and bankruptcies. Clever use of these databases, Hanks explains, “tells [a] life story for $15.”
With information from public records, an investigator can move on to “pretexting,” also known as “blagging” in Great Britain. Basically it’s a simple role play: An investigator uses information he already has to try to extract more.
For years, investigators used pretexting to obtain phone records, and for tabloids, those records can provide useful evidence. A frequently dialed phone number, for example, might signal a love triangle that eventually splits up a Hollywood power couple. For reporters, the information could provide a chance to break an explosive story.
To get someone’s phone records, an investigator could simply call the phone company posing as a customer, then glide past security questions posed by customer service agents by using the SSN or other information obtained in a simple database search.
“They’ll ask you security questions that only you should know, but any good investigator can find through databases,” Hanks explains.
Pretexting received a lot of attention in the scandal surrounding Murdoch’s News of the World, and it surfaced at the center of a 2006 scandal here in the United States involving the technology company Hewlett-Packard. Determined to find out who was leaking sensitive information about the company’s strategic plans to reporters, HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn authorized a secret investigation of the company’s board of directors, which HP later acknowledged included the use of pretexting by the investigators to obtain board members’ phone records. In the wake of the HP scandal, Congress passed a law making pretexting for phone records illegal, which President George W. Bush signed in early 2007.
Hanks and a number of other investigators contacted by FRONTLINE say that following the passage of the new law, they stopped doing phone-record searches. But one PI told FRONTLINE that he had recently received an unsolicited fax promising records of “all long-distance calls made in a one-month period and the dates they were made on” for a rate of $100.
Hanks says that the scandal at News of the World has given him second thoughts about his career. Though his work has lead to big scoops, including helping break the story of Heidi Fleiss, the so-called “Hollywood Madam,” for years, he says, he’s helped tabloid reporters pray on people’s lives: “I only made a living because of other people’s suffering.” He says he’s tired of seeing facts in stories get twisted, papers baiting readers with celebrity gossip only to print something about a relative far outside the public eye, or publishing rumors about a now deceased movie star who can’t speak up or sue.