Phone Hackers, Inc. – Spectator UK

The final edition of News of the World, publis...

The final edition of News of the World, published on 10 July 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Auuthor Frank M. Ahearn for The Spectator – The dark art of stealing personal information is not confined to newspapers, as a former practitioner explains

‘Hi, this is Mr Pretext from mobile phone activations. Our systems are down and I need you to bring up a customer’s mobile account for me please.’ I must have repeated this lie thousands of times in the past 20 years. It helped me gain access to information — criminal records, social security numbers, phone logs — that I would then hand on to all sorts of clients: journalists, insurers, cuckolded husbands and even policemen. As an American who spent many years in this underground industry, I can tell you that the British phone-hacking scandal has exposed only a tiny part of a vast criminal network.

In the old days, private investigators would peer through letterboxes or ransack the bins of their targets. In the past ten to 15 years, however, technology has multiplied the ways in which people like me can snoop on people like you. Mobile phone records, health records, anything that is held digitally can be accessed. My working day would start with a request to find phone records of one person, or the bank statement of another, or maybe the criminal record of a third. I’d find private details through utility companies, shops or frequent-flyer schemes. Then I’d pick up the phone and start blagging — or, as we called it in my part of the trade, pretexting: lying to extract personal details.

Glenn Mulcaire, the man at the centre of the News of the World case, was a professional footballer before he became an investigator. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t. What I did for a living — and what detectives acting for tabloid journalists are alleged to have done for a living — was hardly technical. It’s not hacking, in the sense of requiring computer programming skills or sophisticated manipulation of telecoms systems. All I needed was the ability to lie convincingly. The tactics uncovered in the News of the World case — accessing voicemail by giving a default code, or sometimes by persuading someone to set a code of your choice — is standard operating procedure for those on the underground superhighway of private information for sale.

Our gift was the ability to convince other people to give us the information we needed. Hacking phone systems is no trouble at all when you have a contact in the phone company or the police. I’d call the telephone company, posing as my target. ‘I lost my bill and need to take a few minutes and go over my list of calls,’ I’d say. Some people agreed straight away, others wouldn’t. When I felt the operator was on the fence, I played the sympathy card. ‘If I don’t turn in my expenses to my boss, he won’t reimburse me,’ I’d say, or explain haltingly about the surprise trip to Legoland I was planning for my children. The trick then was to stay silent. You’d be amazed just how much information could be spilled — after an awkward pause, of course — using these simple techniques.

I called my trade skip-tracing, not hacking. I was paid to find criminals, defaulting debtors and court witnesses. I carried out work for newspapers, too. When they wanted to talk to some children who had spent the night with Michael Jackson at Neverland, they called me. When they wanted to monitor O.J. Simpson’s bank accounts, they called me. I was once hired by a paparazzo to find Ozzy Osbourne’s private telephone numbers. I found eight. Read more.

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