The Federal Trade Commission's crackdown on information brokers is likely to draw attention to a thorny question: Does the banking industry benefit from deceptive information-gathering practices?
"There are two sides to the story. There is the bank as victim and ... there is the bank as customer of these firms," said David Medine, the FTC's associate director for financial practices. "It certainly is intriguing."
In the first lawsuit of its kind, the FTC is suing Touch Tone Information Inc., a Denver information broker, alleging that its agents posed as bank customers to obtain sensitive personal information. The agency claims this so-called pretext calling violates the Fair Trade Act.
Though banking industry officials claim to oppose the practice, financial institutions, knowingly or not, employ companies that use pretext calling.
The attention to pretext calling "has been a little bit of a wake-up call" for banks, said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association.
"Banks will hire outside contractors to assist with collections, and some if not very many of those contractors have been using pretexting," said Robert S. Douglas, an Alexandria, Va., private investigator. "With the larger banks, it's probably pretty prevalent."
Mr. Douglas said many banks may not know how their contractors are getting the information, but he added that they might not be inclined to ask.
John Byrne, senior federal counsel for the American Bankers Association, said the industry agrees that new laws are needed to ban pretext calling. The ABA supports legislation that would make pretext calling a crime punishable by fines. Such provisions are included in both the House and Senate financial modernization bills.
Mr. Belew said his members support the legislation in theory but are concerned it may restrict banks' other collection methods.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency cooperated with the FTC, serving as a middleman between the agency and the banks that participated in the sting operation. Also, in August all four federal bank and thrift agencies warned institutions about pretext calling.
The FTC sued Touch Tone on April 21 under the Fair Trade Act, which makes it illegal to engage in unfair or deceptive trade practices.
Using a private detective, the FTC hired Touch Tone to get the account numbers and balances of four individuals with accounts at Wachovia Corp., Washington Mutual Inc., and Bank One Corp.
Touch Tone delivered all the requested information. The FTC alleges that it did so by calling banks pretending to be depositors and asking bank employees for account information. In one example, the caller coaxed the information from a bank employee after convincing him he had forgotten his mother's maiden name.
The FTC wants Touch Tone to stop pretext calling and forfeit any revenues generated by the practice.
Touch Tone's owners could not be reached. But its lawyer, Stephen C. Leckar, a partner in the Butera & Andrews law firm here, said the company plans to fight the suit.