Official says Verizon overcharges to obtain phone records

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(Host) A leading law enforcement official is complaining that the region’s dominant phone company charges too much money to produce court-ordered phone records.

Verizon is already under fire for allegedly allowing the federal government access to its customer call records.

But the Chittenden County prosecutor says he encountered another problem with the phone company. He says he faced exorbitant fees when he tried to get call records in a criminal investigation.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Chittenden County State’s Attorney Bob Simpson says there’s an irony in Verizon’s position on customer records.

USA Today reported last week that the phone company turned over millions of customer phone logs to the National Security Agency.

Simpson says he ran into problems last month when he tried to get phone company records in a case involving a missing baby.

He there was evidence that a woman in Franklin County was in contact with people who had taken the baby.

So he wanted to know whom the woman was in touch with. He went to court and got a subpoena. But Verizon, he says, wanted to charge $150 for each day of the woman’s phone records

Since he wanted 33 days worth of records, Simpson says the cost was prohibitive. He dropped the request.

(Simpson) “I couldn’t think there was any cost justification for it. It seemed to me that the only reason they would charge $150 per day for these records was to discourage law enforcement from asking them. And I think that’s a tactic that’s worked. I know at least one probably two police chiefs who’ve told me they had just not bothered to do investigations when they realized that they had to pay $150 a day to get the phone records.”

(Dillon) Fortunately, in the case of the missing baby, the child was returned safe and sound.

The state’s attorney has filed a complaint with the Department of Public Service, the agency that represents consumers in utility issues. He also wrote Senator Patrick Leahy – a leading congressional critic of the NSA program.

Simpson says he wanted to let Leahy know that while the NSA apparently got Verizon’s cooperation in a very broad record request, local law enforcement faced a harder time.

(Simpson) “We had a focused, legitimate, I think reason to seek these records. And it seems at least that the other request that Verizon’s apparently honored, certainly doesn’t seem to be focused.”

(Dillon) Cost is an issue for local police as they try to get phone records. Walt Decker is deputy police chief in Burlington. He says his agency paid several thousand dollars to get phone records in two recent murder investigations.

(Decker) “And I would never say that we’re going to limit our investigative aggressiveness based on a cost factor, because there are certain types of crimes that you have to move forward and you have to go with. It does at any given time though make one stop and think at the hour of day or at the time of investigation, ‘do I need this now or should I go in another direction just because of that huge expense?'”

(Dillon) Decker says that cell phone records – as opposed to those made to and from a land line — are usually provided free of charge.

And he points out that the phone data are just as useful for police to establish alibis or close out leads as they are for identifying possible suspects.

A Verizon spokeswoman says the company’s policy is to charge for records that are not kept in the normal course of business. For example, a person’s phone bill would be provided to law enforcement free of charge.

But the spokeswoman says the company does feel legally justified in charging for records that require extensive searching or are labor-intensive to produce.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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