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Identity Theft and Online Government Records

December 19th, 2007 · 1 Comment · New Links, News, Ohio

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have issued this warning about online access to government records:

There is an almost certain prospect that easy online access to personal information will prove a bonanza for not only identity thieves, but predatory businesses such as unscrupulous telemarketers.

… The thief may use personal information to obtain a credit card, a loan, open utility accounts, rent an apartment or even to complete major transactions such as purchasing a car or a home.

Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, loan account numbers, dates of birth, and bank account numbers represent a gold mine to dishonest individuals as well as the rising number of organized criminal enterprises and gangs that specialize in systematic identity theft. (emphasis added)

As noted by the Albuquerque Tribune on November 3, 2007, identify theft can also land innocent people in jail:

… after [Erik Lea] was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center, a routine records check uncovered an outstanding warrant for his arrest on 2005 narcotics charges on which he had skipped out. As a result of the warrant, his bail shot from $5,000 to $20,000 cash only, a guarantee that he wouldn’t be free anytime soon. Only the warrant wasn’t his.

… In Lea’s case, having his identity stolen cost him six scary days in jail before he could get anyone in authority to listen to him. “I was stuck in limbo,” he said. “I had no contact with the outside world.” It also cost him his job, his house, likely his truck and his peace of mind. (emphasis added)

In a May 25, 2005 article, The Washington Post notes that court clerks and other record custodians could start removing personal identification from new cases, but “billions of records already are online.” The Post notes that “few local governments have the resources to go into all existing online records to remove sensitive data,” and

“It’s probably going to be a county-by-county undertaking, as record custodians are able to convince local administrators that this is worthy of taxpayer dollars,” said Mark Ladd, a former register of deeds in Wisconsin who works on privacy issues for the Property Records Industry Association.

From MSNBC on February 5, 2007:

In Ohio, a frustrated Cynthia Lambert finally sued the county. “The one entity that I thought was there to protect citizens, the county government, was spoon-feeding these criminals,” she says. Before long, the county stopped posting parking tickets and other public records.

Some other state and local governments also are removing personal records. But experts say in many cases, the damage is already done. Thanks to your government, your personal information may already be floating in cyberspace forever.

(emphasis added)

For a general overview about protecting personal information in court files, there is an article entitled What Everyone Should Know About Court Records posted at the new Court Reference Blog.

Additional resources are available at the Identity Theft Resource Center.

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