I get calls often asking whether I could help a client obtain phone records. Specifically, what prompts this article is that I had a client inquiring whether a private investigator could collect text messages between two people deciding to hire him for a C-level management role.
Can a private investigator get phone records? Are text messages obtainable? The answer is simple; it is illegal for any person to pretext a telephone company to gather phone data. It is illegal to surreptitiously intercept any telephonic communications. There are strict Federal laws and these include private investigators who may not illegally get phone or text message records from any carrier.
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Why You Are Here Reading This
It is likely you are reading this for the same two reasons thousands of people have read this article. The first reason is perhaps you are wondering if you can find someone's text or phone records, or if you could hire a private investigator to do so. The second reason is that you may be curious on how you can protect your communications from data brokers, governments, and those pesky private detectives.
Read on to understand both matters more clearly.
PHONE RECORDS AND TEXT MESSAGES
We can easily understand that text messages are part of a phone record since text messages will most commonly derive from a mobile device such as a cell phone.
Phone records may include the phone number of the caller and the person called, the date, time, and perhaps the IP address of the caller. Phone records will also contain data from which switch the call originated in hard-wired phones (do those exist anymore?) And in the case of the mobile phone, the metadata will contain the cell phone towers the user used to make the calls.
What is an SMS Text?
SMS is known as Short Messaging Service–text messages.
Text messages will contain much of the same content:
The sender's phone number
The recipient's phone number
The time of the text
The date of the text
The location of the person sending
And in some cases, mobile providers keep the content of the text
As you are probably aware, most text messages are constrained to 160 characters or less.
I am not sure if this is true, but I understand that the man who invented this technique used postcards as a sample. He randomly sampled many handwritten postcards to find that most messages were 160 or fewer characters.
Multi-Media Service (MMS) messages can have up to 1600 characters.
If you use iPhone to iPhone messaging, then you have unlimited characters.
I'm sure there is a lot more to say about the history of SMS, but this article aims to help you understand how it all relates to private investigators and whether they can obtain phone records and text messages.
How Long Are My Text Messages Retained?
Text messages are retained by some carriers, each with different retention periods.
Text messages get stored in the carriers' data centers in various locations in the United States.
As we can see from the data collected by the ACLU in 2011, every carrier has different data retention policies.
Now, mind you, 2011 was when this critical information came to light, and companies have merged and changed. We use this as an understanding, not as the current rules, as there is no current data without making a lot of requests as the ACLU has done.
This report by the ACLU shares the following information: (2011)
A lot of metadata gets collected by carriers
Verizon appears to be the most intrusive data collector
Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile did not keep the contents of text messages
Call detail records can be held for one year to seven years.
Text message metadata for one year to seven years, depending upon the carrier.
There is much to say about private investigators, cell phone records, texting, and law enforcement's increased ability to track people locally, but we will save that for another time.
What Is Pretexting by Private Investigators?
First, let me dispel a myth about private detectives getting mobile phone data. Private investigators do not have a backdoor into the mobile phone carriers' databases. The idea that a detective can hack into carrier source information is perpetuated on television and in movies, but simply not true.
No private investigator can access the data directly unless they pretext.
You can define pretexting as pretending to be someone you are not, and eliciting information on the account in which you are pretexting. Pretexting is an art and a science. It is also called social engineering, or one aspect of it, at least.
The Federal Communications Commission has pretexting regulations. Pretexting is fraud because the private investigator is obtaining personal information fraudulently.
President Bush signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006. In part, a person who illegally obtains phone records, specifically via pretexting, can be sentenced to 10 years in prison—a pretty stiff penalty.
Prison time is an apparent reason private investigators don't illegally pretext to obtain information. Especially in light of the whole scandal involving HP and the private investigators they hired and subsequently broke the law. You can read about the HP debacle here.
Warrant and Subpoenas Explained
Warrants and subpoenas are both directives from the court.
The most common subpoena orders someone to appear before the court to testify. Lawyers can issue subpoenas.
Warrants are used by law enforcement and give them a specific authority in a matter. A warrant is issued when it is something law enforcement needs court approval to do.
There is a lot more to say on warrants and subpoenas but let's move on to how that applies to phone records.
Private Investigators Cannot Get Warrants or Subpoenas
Since a private investigator cannot legally obtain a subpoena (lawyer) or a warrant (law enforcement), this is not an option to acquire any cell phone records.
Text records are the same since they are telecommunication and cannot be intercepted by a private investigator or anyone else or obtained from the carriers.
The Laws on Telecommunications Interception (USA)
Intercepting wire and electronic communications (including text messages and phone records) is a federal offense. It falls under the 13 statutes found in 18 U.S. Code Chapter 119.
18 U.S. Code Section 2510 – Definitions
18 U.S. Code section 2511 – Interception and disclosure of wire, oral, or electronic communications prohibited
18 U.S. Code section 2512 – Manufacture, distribution, possession, and advertising of wire, oral, or electronic communication intercepting devices prohibited
18 U.S. Code section 2513 – Confiscation of wire, oral, or electronic communication intercepting devices
18 U.S. Code section 2514 – Repealed. Pub. L. 91–452, title II, 18 U.S. Code section 227(a), Oct. 15, 1970, 84 Stat. 930]
18 U.S. Code section 2515 – Prohibition of use as evidence of intercepted wire or oral communications
18 U.S. Code section 2516 – Authorization for interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications
18 U.S. Code section 2517 – Authorization for disclosure and use of intercepted wire, oral, or electronic communications
18 U.S. Code section 2518 – Procedure for interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications
18 U.S. Code section 2519 – Reports concerning intercepted wire, oral, or electronic communications
18 U.S. Code section 2520 – Recovery of civil damages authorized
18 U.S. Code section 2521 – Injunction against illegal interception
18 U.S. Code section 2522 – Enforcement of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)
Please note that 18 U.S. Code section 2522 (CALEA) gives law enforcement broad sweeping rights in intercepting our telecommunications and text messages and identifying our locations quickly.
As you will note, should you read through Title 18, nowhere does it allow a private investigator to intercept any communications.
So, we can end the conversation here, right? Yes and no.
No! A Private Investigator Cannot Get Your Text Records, Unless...
So far, we have established that phone records are private unless you are law enforcement and have a legal reason to access those records. Private investigators have no access to them, legally or illegally.
Phone records and text records are protected by federal law. And unless you want to risk prison time, private investigators should stop eluding to the fact that they can get them. It has put other private investigators in jail.
Cell Phone Forensics May Hold The Answers
Should you legally have a device in your possession, then a qualified computer forensics private investigator may be able to retrieve data from the device.
Qualified private investigation firms with the staff can forensically review any device and find deleted or hidden data. Perhaps the device still has data that can be retrieved that may help prove your case.
When a cyber investigator forensically examines a phone, they are obligated to do two things:
Get as much data off the phone as possible
Preserve the data in a manner that makes it presentable in court and will withstand judge and jury
The forensic investigator does not look to interpret the data. Interpretation may be left to the contracting private investigator or a lawyer.
What Can a Private Investigator Obtain In a Forensic Cell Phone Review?
Suffice it to say, mobile phones contain a considerable portion of everyone's lives. During a forensic evaluation of a cell phone, a private investigator will gather a plethora of actionable intelligence with their digital forensics expert, some of which may be call logs and text messages.
Cell phone GPS locations
Messaging apps contents
Web browser queries
Often, data can be retrieved from the said device even if the user deleted the information.
Bonus: How To You Protect Your Text Messages and Phone Calls
I wanted to include a way that you can protect your phone records as much as possible. Even though you may be wondering if a private investigator can obtain phone records or text messages (and, now you know), I wanted to provide an alternative to tell nosey phone companies and an over-bloated government to mind their own business.
Why do I mention government intrusion on our cell phones? Because it happened from 2001-to 2015 when our government secretly monitored most Americans, even though most had done nothing wrong.
Keep your personal life personal. Do what you can to create new habits that do not leave a trail of your entire life on your phone. Here is a way you can do that.
Use Encrypted Apps, and I Don't Mean Whatsapp
Protect yourself with quality apps that respect your privacy and allow you to communicate with people safely and without the phone companies knowing who you are talking to or texting.
We have established that private investigators can no longer pretext phone companies to get your information. There are too many security passphrase, threats of prison, etc. So the only other ones to have access is government. Law enforcement and NSA are the biggest culprits for accessing law-abiding Americans' telecommunications data.
The point of this article is not to get too deep into the apps. But suffice it to say: use Signal Private Messenger with people you know (because it asks for your phone number to sign up). Use Session Private Messenger for people you don't know and want extreme security.
Bonus: keep reading for what we believe could be an even easier app that encrypts your messages with zero knowledge of you or your conversations.
Both of these apps have an incredible amount of security. Signal Private Messenger has received a formal summons by law enforcement for user data, and all they can ever give is when a user created an account and when it was last online. Signal has successfully proven it has nothing to provide to law enforcement or anyone else.
Do not use Whatsapp or Telegram? Why? Telegram gives up data to law enforcement, and you need to be sure you are in private mode to get any encryption. Facebook owns Whatsapp and collects details of who is in your phone book, who you are talking to, and where you are using their app. Pure privacy intrusion is all Facebook is.
The Bonus App That Everyone Is Talking About
As I shared, there is something new in 2023 that I cannot recommend enough. We are not compensated to share this. It is called xPal. You can visit their website here. xPal offers the most comprehensive encryption service for free that we are aware of. You can even enter your password backwards and completely wipeout all people and messages instantly. The features are far richer than Signal and Session (we love them both). But, we see xPal as the way forward and recommend you check them out. Get all your friends and family too as well thus creating the larger networks of people we need to make this work for all of us.
I know you are reading this article to know whether a private investigator can get your cell phone records and text messages. I wanted to write a comprehensive guide to help you understand the matter more deeply.
Most private investigators write very little on this except to say that "it is illegal for a private investigator to access your cell phone records," but this does not explain why and the ramifications should one try.
All one needs to do is harken back to 2006 and read about the HP private investigator scandal to understand how illegal it is to attempt to obtain cell phone and text data from mobile phone carriers.
Plain and simple, it is illegal to obtain records surreptitiously. Mobile carriers cannot be called and asked for the information because one is a private investigator. I doubt you know a guy who knows a guy too. That would also be off-limits since it would still be gathered illegally.
Private investigators must remain ethical and legal and respect laws, including the privacy of persons that we are investigating.