Prepaid Section: Unmasking Criminals

Posted: 03/2002

Unmasking Criminals
Would Congress Pass Law Requiring Prepaid Wireless ID Check to Aid Investigations?

By Josh Long

The cooperation of prepaid companies remains crucial in helping federal authorities find suspected terrorists linked to the Sept. 11 bombings and other criminal activities. Last September the International Prepaid Communications Association
(IPCA) provided the FBI a fact sheet about prepaid contacts, which was routed to central headquarters and disseminated to agents.

“It is widely known terrorists use prepaid phone cards and prepaid cellular to attempt to mask their activities,” says IPCA director Howard Segermark. “We have been told we certainly helped [authorities] a great deal.”

An FBI spokesperson dec-lined to comment specifically on the volume of prepaid phone cards suspected terrorists used or discuss how prepaid companies have aided the authorities in the investigation. The U.S. Depart-ment of Justice did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The FBI spokesperson says privacy laws still are in effect and more often than not the authorities must issue a subpoena if they want account information. She agrees there would be no way to restrict distribution of prepaid cards.

But prepaid companies may have to meet new obligations in the wake of the terrorist attacks. And it is unclear how prepaid companies must comply with the USA PATRIOT (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001, Segermark says. An AT&T Corp. spokesperson says the company believes the act did not concern prepaid providers.

Yet Congress often neglects prepaid providers when adopting new telecom laws and is likely to revisit how the PATRIOT Act will affect such companies, says Jerry Easom, vice president of industry relations at Illuminet Inc.

A larger issue looms in the wake of the attacks. Will Congress adopt legislation that would stamp out anonymity across a wide spectrum of industries, including prepaid wireless?

Segermark says it is feasible Congress would pass a law requiring people to show ID to purchase a wireless phone. Anybody can go to a vending machine or convenience store today and buy a wireless phone, remaining anonymous.

“There is discussion this may change, though no one has put forth a firm proposal as to what identification may be necessary or how it will be reported or stored,” he says.

The IPCA director does not think it is likely Congress would require prepaid card users to show ID because authorities already can track the source of a prepaid phone card call on a fixed phone.

To tackle issues pertaining to security, the IPCA has established a 16-person security affairs committee represented by various prepaid companies. The committee is working with the FBI to conduct a national conference by early spring. Illuminet’s Easom is committee chairman.

“There is a great need for educating law enforcement agents as to what the prepaid telecom community can do for them, and similarly we feel there is a need to educate the prepaid telecom providers as to how best prepare for inquiries from law enforcement agents,” Segermark says.

Prepaid companies have played a pivotal role in helping authorities find criminals. Segermark recalls a kidnapping case involving twins in the 1990s, the FBI contacted the IPCA to track down the name of a phone card company and acquire the call detail records.

The result: Authorities found the kidnappers and recovered the children.

Under the false impression that prepaid cards can’t be traced, criminals unwittingly have left a trail for law enforcement. For instance, authorities traced prepaid calls made to a rental truck and fertilizer company by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Segermark says.

It is likely legislators will act shortly to make it increasingly difficult for the likes of McVeigh and other criminals to retain anonymity. At issue is much more than the anonymous nature of prepaid communications.

Legislators likely will discuss the public Internet and other instances where people can engage in an anonymous transaction, such as renting a vehicle for cash, says Glenn Manishin, outside counsel for the IPCA and a partner at Kelley, Drye and Warren LLP. He believes lawmakers will restrict one’s ability to perform an anonymous transaction to preserve security. “I think the issue transcends prepaid phone cards,” he says.

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