Pretexting made the news when Hewlett-Packard employees were accused of engaging in the activity. HP executives had to testify before Congress at a time when the status of pretexting was still unclear. Not long after, President George W. Bush signed legislation making pretexting a federal crime.

What it is

Pretexting refers to using deception, impersonation or misrepresentation to obtain personal information from someone either by telephone or electronically. It also refers to using fraudulent means to secure customer billing records from telephone companies.

What HP did

Hewlett-Packard wanted to find out who was leaking the private company turning up in news reports. HP filed a report with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that stated the company had acquired the personal phone records of board members and journalists in an effort to discover the identity of the leaker. At the time, it was not clear whether pretexting was illegal, but testimony before Congress followed.

Penalties

The Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act, passed in 2006, makes it illegal to use the phone or a computer program and fraudulent means to obtain personal information. Dubbed the “pretexting law,” it establishes heavy fines and prison time of up to 10 years for an attempt to “obtain, transfer or disclose phone records without prior customer authorization.” There is a maximum fine of $250,000, although the fine can go higher, depending on the circumstances.

Seeking help

Pretexting is a form of social engineering, the practice of using deceptive means to procure sensitive information. Someone you know may collect personal information, such as credit card or Social Security numbers. On the other hand, like Hewlett-Packard, the company you work for may have involvement in a pretexting operation. If accused of participating in this kind of scheme, it is never too early to seek help and push back against accusations that could damage your career, your reputation and your future.