Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Virginia Watchdog - one woman making a difference in the war against Identity Theft

*Cartoon courtesy of the Virginia Watchdog site.

BJ (Betty) Ostergren a.k.a. “the Virginia Watchdog” is ONE woman making a difference on a daily basis. The way she makes a difference is by stopping our personal information from being plastered all over the Internet by local governments.

Most of these records have been sitting in different county offices for a long time, however in the past ten years; many of them have gone online.

These records contain everything a criminal would need to commit identity-theft -- or even scarier -- everything a more twisted person would need to track someone down with a more sinister intent than stealing money.

Since children’s information is on these sites, this information could even be used by pedophiles.

The reason this information has been placed online is because special interests have been pressuring legislators to make it easier for them to data-mine information. Data brokers have a vested interest in having this information VERY easy to get at.

They are making billions of dollars selling people’s personal information.

Data brokers sell this information to just about anyone -- as evidenced in a recent New York Times story -- where one of these brokers, InfoUSA, sold lists of information used by Internet scam artists to target senior citizens.

Smart Money did a story on BJ, which shows how this information is being made available, worldwide. Smart Money correspondent Aleksandra Todorova quoted David Bloys, a title examiner as saying:

Once a county's records are digitized, it's very easy — and incredibly cheap — for data compilers like Axciom and DataTrade to purchase the files and sell them to information brokers like Choicepoint, says Bloys. That's because under most states' Open Records laws, counties cannot charge more than the cost of copying the documents — which means a computer disk containing 10,000 records can be hadfor as little as a few dollars. What's more, Bloys explains, the companies that actually scan the documents for the county — the so-called wholesalers — often ship the images to foreign countries, like India or China, where outsourcers index the records much more cheaply than could be done in the United States. "[Our public information] is being distributed instantly all over the world," says Bloys.

The Smart Money article also pointed out a site, which proves this point:

To see for yourself, take a look at the web site of String Information Services, an outsourcing data digitalization and processing company in India, which boasts of its ability to provide you or your business with "online access to [lien and judgment] records of more than 200 counties."

BJ was kind enough to spend a little time with me and demonstrate exactly what she is talking about. We got on the Internet together, and she was able to find a lot of personal information on people I know in the greater Washington D.C. area (Maryland Suburbs).

BJ has been able to access a lot of people’s personal information on these sites. Some of the people's information she has found include politicians, crime fighters and celebrities. Personal information on Wolf Blitzer, Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Jeb Bush, Colin Powell, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro - to name a few - have all been found online by BJ.

There is little doubt all of us are at risk when personal and private information is available to anyone, but some are at more risk, than others.

BJ was quoted in the Washington Post as saying something, which should scare all of us:

Don't you think if I can get Tom DeLay's Social Security number . . . that some guy in an Internet cafe in Pakistan can, too?" she asks, her voice rising with indignation. "It's just ridiculous what we're doing in this country."

This struck me as particularly chilling, in the post 9-11 world. Think about what a terrorist, or other fiend could do with some of this information, which can be accessed by anyone!

To me, BJ is a real American hero and deserves of all of our support. She is not compensated in any manner for what she is doing, and has spent a lot of her own money on this NOBLE effort. She also spends a lot of her PERSONAL TIME letting people know they are exposed.

Although, this story is being covered in a lot of places -- including this humble blog -- there are some, who think she should be featured on a big show like Oprah.

Bill O’Reilly lobbied long and hard to get on Oprah, and she finally put him on. This is an important story, perhaps Bill should consider doing a segment on the Virginia Watchdog, also.

Recently, Oprah did a show about Internet fraud, after her name was being used in some Internet scams. There is little doubt that the Internet has enabled a lot of fraud, making it too easy to do with the click of a mouse from just about anywhere.

You can write Oprah to ask her to put BJ on her show, here.

BJ's site, which has a ongoing chronology of her efforts, can be seen, here.

The Smart Money article, I quoted can be viewed, here.

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