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Monday, August 13, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cellphone directory grabs your number

Seattle Times technology reporter

Steve Largent's 14-year career as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks led to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But apparently he's not well-known enough to Bellevue-based Intelius. Or at least to its new comprehensive cellphone directory, which purportedly lists mobile numbers for more than half of all U.S. subscribers -- but not Largent's.

What makes it more striking is that the former pro-football player these days is the president and chief executive for the cellphone industry's main lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

That issue aside, the directory treads into disputed territory. While landline phone numbers have long been listed in directories, cellphone numbers have been considered uncharted territory.

Most people carry their cellphones around with them everywhere and pay for every minute, making a person's number coveted and private.

No cellphone directory, or at least one claiming to have almost every number, has been created because no one has been able to agree on how it should be done.

That hasn't stopped Intelius, a company founded in 2003 by former InfoSpace Chief Executive Naveen Jain. The company, which sells background checks online for a fee, said two weeks ago it is dialing into one more business by selling mobile-phone numbers.

People who visit www.intelius.com can enter a person's name to get a cellphone number, or do the reverse by entering a number to get the subscriber's name. Each search costs $15.

Ed Petersen, Intelius co-founder and senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the company has 120 million listings but expects to increase that to 240 million in the next two weeks. If that is true, Intelius is claiming to have nearly every single subscriber's digits in the U.S.

"We are getting pretty close; it's a very accurate database," Petersen said.

Largent, who heads CTIA -- The Wireless Association, tested out that statement firsthand last week by doing a reverse search, where he entered his cellphone number into the database and paid $15 with his credit card. The information returned to him was incorrect.

A man in Rockville, Md., was identified as having Largent's cellphone number -- a number Largent has used for about four years.

"How could they get every single cellular-phone number?" Largent said. "With 240 million, they are talking about every single customer of a wireless device. There's no way they are even close to that figure, and the ones that they have are wrong."

Frustrated, Largent called Intelius customer service to ask for a refund. He was denied. He called back a second time and was denied again.

"They are charging you and keeping the money even if they give you the wrong information," he said. "It's a scam."

Controversy seems to accompany the idea of a cellphone directory. The subject was broached about three years ago when the largest U.S. wireless carriers proposed banding together to form a directory. In some circumstances, small businesses that rely on cellphones were asking to be listed.

But concerned that a directory could threaten people's privacy, consumer groups and state governments leaped into action. Their goal was to make the directory optional, unlike the White Pages, where an individual must request his or her landline number to be unlisted.

About a dozen states, including Washington, passed laws requiring wireless carriers to obtain the consent of subscribers before listing them.

At the center of the controversy was Portland-based Qsent, a small company that was trying to create a secure system to ensure numbers didn't get into the hands of telemarketers. Chicago-based TransUnion bought Qsent last year.

Aaron Smith, TransUnion's president of telephony, said Qsent's technology is ready to go whenever the carriers decide to enable it.

"Whenever there's a question about why hasn't there been a service brought to market, I think it's a fair question to ask the wireless carriers," Smith said. "They control when a service comes to fruition. We need their support and partnership."

If the wireless carriers have chosen not to create a directory, that raises the question: Where is Intelius getting the phone numbers from?

The short answer: It went through a back door.

Petersen declined to give much detail but said Intelius gets data from marketing companies and public records -- all sources people have opted in to, he said.

Petersen said Intelius connects names to numbers by putting together billions of pieces of information. For example, one piece of information might link a name to an address; another source might tie that address to a phone number.

"We did not go into this lightly. Nothing we go into is with a cavalier attitude," Petersen said. "We looked into the rules and regulations and think we are providing a good value to our customers."

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said Intelius likely bought the data from third parties. A marketing firm could have captured a number when a person filled out a form or entered a drawing. The company requesting the information then could sell it to a third party.

As for public documents, McKenna said that's unlikely a good source of cell numbers. "First of all, government agencies don't request or require a cellphone number," he said. "I'm not sure what they are talking about."

McKenna said Intelius seems to be working within the law. The law requires subscribers to opt in to a directory but only when it's created by the cellphone carriers.

"The drafters didn't contemplate third-party activity," McKenna said, but perhaps will have to do so in the future.

As for the accuracy of the service, that's another issue.

Petersen said a newer version of the database, with more numbers, will be available in two weeks.

He said refunds are offered when no data is returned on a reverse search. But the customer must still pay even if the returned data is incorrect.

"That's the challenge for cellphone numbers; there's quite a bit of churn [people stopping and starting service]," Petersen said. "We'll continue to roll out the product and it will get better and better."

A second attempt at searching Intelius's database -- this time for McKenna (in Washington state) -- returned a listing for someone who lives in a Kent trailer. McKenna lives in Bellevue.

Largent said the issue is far from closed. As more people drop their landline for a cellphone only, the problem is likely to snowball with people filling out paperwork that may unknowingly be sold later to others.

"To go out there and say you have 240 million numbers, I can tell you that's not right," Largent said. "To do that without the cooperation of all the carriers is laughable."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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