Sunday, September 5, 2004

Ohio fights to keep records open
to public, but secure

By Sara Thorson
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Four thousand, five hundred and seventy-seven.

That's how many copies of birth certificates someone once requested from a state office, said Mark Kassouf, chief fraud officer for the Ohio Department of Health. Employees were immediately suspicious but, by law, had to provide the documents.

"It wasn't for personal use; I can guarantee that," Kassouf said. "They were looking at those to find ideal candidates for identity theft."

Ohio and about 14 other open-records states face a dilemma involving birth and death records. State officials say they've closed some loopholes in the law that can leave residents vulnerable to identity theft or the country vulnerable to terrorism. But they and federal authorities also say the document fraud problem is growing.

Meanwhile, adoptee and genealogy groups are pushing for more access to birth and death indexes.

In law enforcement circles, those documents are called breeder documents, because criminals use them to breed a financial clone of an identity-theft victim or proof of citizenship.

Government documents fraud was involved in 17,192 cases of identity theft reported in 2003, up 4,246 cases from the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Overall, the fraud accounted for 8 percent of the almost 215,000 cases of identity theft reported by consumers in 2003.

The FTC said its numbers may understate the problem because consumers often don't know how fraud against them was committed.

The documents dilemma is complicated by the fact that vital statistics records are kept in a decentralized system at state and local levels. States try to close loopholes by using security paper, seals and applications for access, but getting records registrars to comply with those steps is another matter, said Richard McCoy, director of public health statistics for Vermont.

His state has almost 250 town clerks who can issue copies of certificates. About a dozen of them don't use security paper because it's more expensive than plain paper, McCoy said. State law doesn't require security paper.

Judith Collins, director of the Identity Theft University-Business Partnership in Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice, said the tools for breeder documents fraud are readily available to thieves. Collins and her staff track identity theft online, train law enforcement officers and assess theft risks for businesses.

As part of their research, her staff printed a 31/2-inch-thick binder full of thousands of names and Social Security numbers from the Internet.

"Identities are out there," Collins said. "Data is going to be increasingly kept in databases. The answer is to secure the borders of those businesses who have the databases, to ensure the people working in their business are honest."

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