County purges Web site

December 22, 2004

By Kimball Perry, Post staff reporter

State Rep. Steve Driehaus got a call a few years ago from one of his fellow lawmakers who read Driehaus' Social Security number to him.

When Driehaus asked Tom Brinkman how he obtained such private information, Brinkman told him he had gotten Driehaus' Social Security number from a government Web site -- where it was a public record.

"I got a speeding ticket and my (Social Security number) was on the ticket" posted on the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Web site, said Driehaus, D-Delhi Township.

"I took a look at (the site) and said, 'Gee, it's not just me. It's all kinds of people.' "

Driehaus' comments came after Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann announced he was removing more than 320,000 public documents from his Web site in an attempt to combat the growing crime of identity theft.

"This is a big deal. It's not something I have done lightly," Hartmann said of the deletions from, which gets 60 million hits a year.

Today, Hartmann will begin blocking access to traffic tickets that previously have been available. Traffic tickets, Hartmann said, are particularly important to identity thieves because they contain names, addresses, telephone numbers and Social Security numbers, all information that can be used to steal an identity and rack up large bills under the new, stolen identity.

Because the documents are public records, they still will be available in the clerk's office at the county courthouse downtown. Their removal from the Web site, however, at least makes it more difficult to obtain them.

"I have seen increasing numbers of identity theft," Hartmann said. "We have had a number of cases where police have told me the bad guys got the information used to steal identities from my Web site. This helps make it safe from Internet predators."

The award-winning Web site was started by Hartmann's predecessor, Jim Cissell, now the Hamilton County Probate Court Judge, and was viewed as a model throughout the country.

Cissell believed if the documents were public, all of them should be placed on the Internet unless a judge orders otherwise. That often happens in domestic relations cases where parents fighting over child support payments often have to submit detailed information about their finances.

Cissell couldn't be reached Tuesday for comment.

"This view was consistent with state public records law in that restricting access to some records and providing Web access may have been problematic," Hartmann said.

Driehaus, who has fought with Cissell over the issue of placing public documents with intimate information on the Internet where it can be viewed across the world, applauded Hartmann's decision.

"I made that recommendation to him two years ago. I don't know what public policy is served by having traffic tickets on a web site," Driehaus said.

"State law does not require you to publish records. It requires you to make them available, not put them on the Internet."

That's exactly what Hartmann said in making his decision, based on a recommendation from Hartmann's Internet Privacy Task Force formed last spring.

What convinced Hartmann to take the step now was a series of identity theft cases that Blue Ash police told him occurred when the thieves used his Web site to steal personal information.

"We really didn't have this kind of concrete evidence that this was happening until they called us," Hartmann said of Blue Ash police. "Now is the time to act."

That's good news for Sgt. Joe Boyatt, chief of the Blue Ash Police Department's Criminal Investigative Section.

"We're in the middle of (an identity theft) investigation right now that's just growing significantly," Boyatt said.

While some arrests have been made in the case, Boyatt declined to discuss specifics for fear of alerting potential arrestees.

He did say, though, that of those already arrested in the case, some confessed to using the clerk's Web site to gather information to steal identities.

"It just makes it really easy now. People can sit at home -- drink coffee, have a beer, smoke crack -- and get personal information and go ahead and steal identities," Boyatt said.

"The bottom line is people have taken liberties with public information that was out there for the greater good."

One convicted felon, Boyatt said, also used the Web site to steal a new identity to hide his criminal status from police and others.

"We've also had cases where people tried to fill out credit card applications over the phone using stolen information," Boyatt added.

"The number of cases continues to grow and grow and grow."

Driehaus began sounding the alarm on that issue several years ago, when he tried to enact legislation that would have done what Hartmann has chosen to do voluntarily. That proposed legislation, Driehaus said, was defeated, largely due to Cissell.

"What my legislation called for was redacting that private information -- Social Security numbers, information on juveniles and private financial information. The opposition came from Cissell," Driehaus said.

"I'm glad they came around. It's a very real problem. You're talking about people's lives here, people whose lives can be ruined."

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