Pretexting is a practice where a person assumes the appearance or purpose of another so as to gain access to resources that they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to have. For example, a person who assumes the identity of a law enforcement officer so as to obtain information such as financial, medical or phone records is guilty of pretexting.

This activity can also be used to gain access to an individual. A pretexter can pretend to have credentials that give them the authority to question an individual. Once their target has fallen for the fraud, the pretexter can proceed to question them and gain access to personal details such as their details of birth, bank account number or Social Security Number (SSN). After that, the pretexter can misuse this information in any way that they please.

Pretexting is a phenomenon that appears in some professions. Examples of these are private investigation, agencies that perform debt collection, agencies that report credit, preparers of income tax as well as brokerages. Officers in these professions regularly face the decision on whether to perform pretexting or not.

How is pretexting used?

A fraudulent private investigator can use pretexting to gain access to another person’s personal details.

For example, in the year 2006, Hewlett Packard (HP) was involved in a case where some private investigators that the company had hired used pretexting so as to gain the records of its directors. After seeing an article written on CNET that discussed the details of a HP management retreat, HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn conducted a very intensive private investigation into her own company to find out who was talking to the reporters.

The article was written by Dawn Kawamoto and Tom Krazit. It discussed the strategy that HP was planning to apply so as to acquire other companies as well as some changes that the company was going to conduct on their products. The private investigators that were hired by HP used pretexting so as to gain the phone records of all the journalists who normally covered HP and wrote about the company. These investigators also used pretexting so as to gain access to the private phone records of a number of HP directors so as to see who was leaking the information. The private investigators impersonated their targets and called their phone companies so as to get these records.

They went as far as using spy software and a fake scoop so as to bait a reporter. The spy software was attached to an email sent to the reporter. Once she forwarded it to her trusted colleagues, the investigators could widen their net to find out the leak in HP. This is a clear example of how private investigators can use pretexting to gain access to private information.

Ethical issues surrounding pretexting

There are some ethical issues that surround pretexting. It is a deceptive activity that is used to gain access to someone’s private records. Seeing as there is deception involved, pretexting raises a number of red flags from an ethical point of view. Pretexting is unethical because it inspires deceptive behaviour among the affected stakeholders. For example, HP employees became more willing to be unethical after seeing that their Chairwoman Patricia Dunn allowed the use of pretexting so as to accomplish her objectives. When pretexting is used by people in authority, it corrodes the integrity of their followers.

Since pretexting involves pretending to be someone else, it involves extensive lying. Lies are an example of unethical behaviour. They cause honest people to misplace their trust, often at their own expense. For example in the HP case, the pretexting investigators caused the phone company representatives to trust them. After that, they divulged the phone records of the journalists and members of the board. After the story emerged and all was exposed, the phone company representatives who gave this information to the private investigators were at risk of punishment because they gave personal information to deceptive people. Therefore, pretexting is unethical because it can negatively affect people who were innocently involved.

Invading someone’s personal details without their permission is very unethical. Phone records are personal details. Amongst other things, they indicate the relationships that a person has created. Some of these relationships require absolute discretion. An example of such is the interaction with a therapist. When private investigators use pretexting to gain access to phone records, they observe these relationships and can use this information to hurt the target. Therefore, pretexting is not ethical at all.

Legal issues surrounding pretexting

Today, pretexting is illegal. It is regarded as a federal offense. Following the widespread disgust at the HP pretexting scandal, President Bush signed a bill making pretexting illegal. According to the law, one is forbidden to misrepresent, impersonate or deceive another so as to get personal information about a target individual. It is also illegal to utilize fraud so as to get the records that companies retain about their customers. This law is cemented in the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006. If law enforcement officers need to get these personal details, they must first of all acquire the necessary warrants.

If one breaks this law that forbids pretexting, they are liable to suffer fines or even imprisonment for up to a decade. Should one use deceit, fraud or computer resources to successfully or unsuccessfully gain access to or transfer personal phone records, they are liable to this punishment. The law forbidding pretexting covers all communications through the phone or devices that are enabled to send messages over the Internet. Moreover, this law about pretexting extends to those who use the acquired information for other acts such as stalking, intimidation of witnesses and any other crimes. The only parties exempt from the pretexting law are emergency services. If they need to use phone records, the employees of emergency response services can legally gain access to these records under the U.S. Communications Act.

Pretexting in the state of Georgia

The scandal involving pretexting by private investigators hired by HP caused many states to pass laws against pretexting. These laws had a primary purpose of protecting phone records from wrongful use. Georgia passed a law to forbid pretexting.This means that private investigators in this state are not allowed to use pretexting to gain access to phone records.


Pretexting is an unethical and illegal practice. Private investigators should steer clear of this activity as they go about their job. As a result of the HP pretexting scandal, many employees and board members of the company resigned. This indicates the negative effects of this practice. It is highly advisable for private investigators to avoid pretexting for the sake of their clients and all other stakeholders involved in an investigation.