Vt. state Web site becomes map for identity thieves

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – A prominent state legislator was not happy Friday when someone called him, told him his Social Security number was on a Web site maintained by the secretary of state’s office and then read it to him.

“That’s a little disturbing, I guess,” said the lawmaker, whose name was withheld from this story to protect him from identity theft.

A Vermont law took effect last July 1 directing state and local government agencies to redact Social Security numbers from public records.

The numbers are considered gold for identity thieves, who can use them to gain access to a variety of business transactions, including obtaining credit in the theft target’s name.

Asked how he thought the new law was working, the lawmaker said, “It doesn’t appear very well. If my Social Security number is on the World Wide Web, it seems like there must be a glitch in the system somewhere.

I certainly would like to hear from the secretary of state on why this is happening.”

Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz said her office’s corporations division maintains tens of thousands of records of commercial borrowing by Vermonters. Items bought on time – ranging from furniture to farm machinery – can result in a Uniform Commercial Code filing to the office.

The Web site is mainly used by businesses looking to trace ownership of such goods when processing applications for financing.

Markowitz said her office was trying to discourage filers from including Social Security numbers in their documents, and going back to redact Social Security numbers from existing documents when requested to do so.

But the office is making no systematic effort to redact the numbers from already scanned and posted documents, said Deputy Secretary of State William Dalton.

“It would take us any number of person-hours,” Dalton said. “I can’t project for sure. It certainly would be months and months of effort to go back and do that.”

Concern about the secretary of state’s Web postings follows last month’s revelation that some 1,100 doctors and other health professionals had their Social Security numbers posted to a site maintained by the state Department of Buildings and General Services as part of a request for proposals to handle state employee health insurance claims.

On learning of the disclosure, the Department of Human Resources, where the request for contract proposals originated, scrambled to contact the affected health providers and to ensure that the information had been taken off the Internet.

A Virginia woman, B.J. Ostergren, has made it her crusade to raise awareness about the problem of sensitive information being posted to the Internet. “I’m all for public records, but people should have to go to the courthouse to look it up. Now you have people all over the world able to get access to this stuff from the comfort of their home computers.”

“We’re spoon-feeding criminals all over the world,” Ostergren said. “How stupid is that?”

Ostergren said farm equipment dealers seem to be especially prone to including Social Security numbers in their filings, which are then scanned by the state agencies that maintain U.C.C. records and end up on the Internet.

The Associated Press found filings for several prominent Vermont farmers on line, complete with nine-digit numbers beginning in 008 – the Social Security Administration’s code for Vermonters.

Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor and vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was alerted to the problem Friday by a leader of a statewide farm organization, who in turn had been alerted by Ostergren about the presence of her and her husband’s Social Security numbers on the Internet.

“When folks’ identities do get stolen, it is almost impossible to get your life back in order – all the harassment and hassles folks have to go through to get it cleaned up,” Campbell said.

He said the Judiciary Committee had changed its schedule for next week to fit in a hearing on the matter on Friday.

AP-ES-01-19-07 1700EST

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