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Can a Private Investigator Get Phone and Text Records?

Man on cell phone
Cell Phone Records and Texts - Can Private Investigators Obtain Them?

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.


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.

2011 retention periods of major cellular providers
Infograph credit: ACLU North Carolina

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