This isn’t the first time private investigators have been caught using social engineering techniques to steal information. The Hewlett Packard case raised caused quite a bit of uproar about this in September of last year.

Here is another case involving private investigators using illegal techniques to data mine information for their clients:

Ten people were indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle in connection with a scheme to illegally obtain confidential information on more than 12,000 citizens across the country. To obtain confidential tax, medical and employment information, workers at BNT Investigations in Belfair, Washington, would pose as another individual to get government agencies including the IRS, the Social Security Administration, and various state employment security offices to provide confidential information. The year-long investigation dubbed, “Operation Dialing for Dollars,” also revealed that some workers posed as representatives of doctors’ offices to get medical or pharmacy records.

The private investigators used “pretexting,” which is a social engineering technique designed to trick people into giving up personal and financial information. Criminals use the same technique to steal people’s identities.

In fact, phishing, where an e-mail is sent impersonating a trusted or authority figure with the intent of getting personal information is a form of “pretexting.”

In this case, we might term what these private eyes did as “vishing,” which is phishing using the telephone.

It appears that the U.S. Attorney’s office agrees that this is little difference in the techniques used by these private eyes and is charging them all with aggravated identity theft.

The ten defendants are charged with Conspiracy and Wire Fraud. Seven of the defendants are charged with Fraudulent Elicitation of Social Security Administration Information. Six of the defendants are charged with Solicitation of Federal Tax Information. All ten defendants are charged with Aggravated Identity Theft. The three Washington defendants are scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Tacoma at 2:30 today.

These are the defendants indicted by the grand jury:
EMILIO TORRELLA, 36, Belfair, Washington
BRANDY N. TORRELLA, 27, Belfair, Washington
STEVEN W. BERWICK, 22, Belfair, Washington
VICTORIA J. TADE, 52, San Diego, California
MEGAN OSOSKE, 40, Beaverton, Oregon
DARCI P. TEMPLETON, 55, Houston, Texas
ESAUN G. PINTO, Sr., 33, Brooklyn, New York
PATRICK A. BOMBINO, 58, Brooklyn, New York
ROBERT GRIEVE, 67, Houston, Texas
ZIAD N. SAKHLEH, 26, Houston, Texas

The Torellas, who own BNT investigations, allegedly are the “phishy-investigators” who were selling this illegally obtained information to their peers nationwide.

The private investigators had been hired by attorneys, insurance companies and collection agencies to investigate the backgrounds of opposing parties, witnesses and benefit claimants, and to uncover assets or income. The TORRELLAs promoted their services to the private investigators.

BNT investigations targeted financial institutions and government agencies to get the information they were selling.

This makes me wonder how much the people paying for these services knew and to what extent they might be held liable?

Although, it doesn’t appear that more sophisticated spying (identity theft?) techniques were used in this case, in the Hewlett Packard case investigators dropped software (malicious?) on computer systems to monitor the people they were “investigating.”

Press release from the Western Washington U.S. Attorney’s Office, here.

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