Watchdog Nation reveals New Mexico crime ring preying on Texas senior citizens

An identity theft ring based in Albuquerque has stolen the identities of 232 people, most with ties to Tarrant County, Albuquerque police tells Watchdog Nation.

Turns out the thieves got the information from an unlikely place: Tarrant County court records available free online for use by the public.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, millions of records with sensitive information were on the county website.

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A member of the criminal ring showed an Albuquerque police detective on a computer how easy it was to pull names, birth dates, and Social Security and driver’s license numbers from county clerk records, according to a police report.

Data miners, part of a drug ring, used the information to steal the identities of Texans and residents of other states who had ties to Tarrant County through court cases, Albuquerque police say. The ring used the information to open lines of credit in the names of some of the victims.

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Victim Rebecca Watson of Fort Worth says she learned about the ring from Albuquerque police. She says that a detective told her he notified the county clerk’s office in November but that nothing had changed.

The detective was unavailable for comment.

County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia told me that nobody informed her what was happening until early March, when Sheriff Dee Anderson was briefed by Albuquerque police.

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Mary Louise Garcia

Garcia said she took immediate and unprecedented action when she learned of the criminal investigation in New Mexico.

She said she hired a vendor to audit 12 million court documents in her office’s online repository.

The vendor found that 2 million records on the website listed birth dates or Social Security or driver’s license numbers. Those included divorce records, real estate and family law records, and a dozen other types of court documents.

Garcia ordered that records with sensitive information be removed from online viewing. The vendor is deleting sensitive information before Garcia places the records back online.

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The process, which will cost about $89,000, should take several weeks, she said.

The paper versions of the 2 million documents containing sensitive information are still available for public viewing at the courthouse, as required by law.

Worries that online court records could be an easy source for ID thieves have been voiced for years, but county officials say this is the first major case that has come to their attention.

“It’s one of the vulnerabilities we all face,” Anderson said.

Five years ago, county clerk offices statewide rebelled after an attorney general opinion said they must redact Social Security numbers from court records, including those online. Offices froze in confusion, and some shut down. A week later, the attorney general’s office, citing complaints from legislators, rescinded its opinion.

Then the Legislature enacted a law permitting people to ask that their own Social Security numbers (but no other identifying information) be removed from paper court records as long as the requesters know the document, page and volume number.

County officials say only a few people each year do that, because most don’t know what’s in court records from old cases. The problem is that, for decades, sensitive data have been routinely used in court documents to legally identify the parties involved.

Some, such as County District Clerk Tom Wilder, want state law changed to allow a “sensitive data sheet” to be included in court filings but available for use only by the parties and court officials; it would never see the light of day in public paper files or online.

Because of the grand scope of this criminal investigation, lawmakers may look at requiring online records statewide to be scrubbed in a way similar to what Tarrant County is doing.

The law did not require Garcia to pull records and remove personal information. “It’s something we want to do in our office to protect our constituents,” she said. “The minute I found out [about the investigation], my administration — we moved on it.”

County officials know little about the criminal investigation, but Albuquerque police spokeswoman Tasia Martinez told Watchdog Nation that officers are immersed in writing a report detailing what happened to the 232 victims.

About 40 are thought to live in Tarrant County. The office has sent letters to victims, though some have been returned with bad addresses.

Several New Mexicans have been charged with theft.

Watson says thieves opened accounts in her name and ran up large charges. Her sensitive information, a detective told her, was culled from her 1999 divorce records.

One of the people arrested in the case told police that she searched divorces on the Tarrant County website until she found papers with Social Security numbers, then copied down the information, according to a police report.

Watson filed a redaction form with the county to remove her Social Security number from paper records. With the online cleanup under way, too, anyone who tries to access her divorce records will get the message, “Access is denied to that item.”

That’s all she ever wanted.

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In cases of life and death, civil servants deserve a break

Is it OK to close a government office when an employee dies?

A woman visited a local courthouse office to renew her car license plates. But the tax assessor-collector’s office was closed.

Allison Davis photo

Allison Davis, a former courthouse employee

A note on the front door stated: “We are saddened by the loss of our fellow employee, Allison Davis, who suddenly passed away on the 28th. We regret the inconvenience, but we will be closed for Allison’s memorial service this day.”

The notice referred visitors to other locations — there are seven other offices in the county — and the office’s Web site, which accepts payments for everything but vehicle title transfers.

Frustrated, the woman tried to get in touch with Tarrant County, Texas Tax Assessor-Collector Betsy Price, finally reaching her on the phone after five tries. Price said she closed the office so Davis’ co-workers could attend the funeral.

The woman was not satisfied.

“Who is your boss?” she asked Price.

“You are. If you live in Tarrant County, you are,” Price replied.

That day, the woman wrote to The Watchdog, “As a taxpayer, I am concerned about the use of our tax money in closing for a day.”

When I called, she said: “We can’t just shut an office. In a school, even if a principal or a teacher dies, they don’t close the school.”

I called Price. As first told in the Dec. 6, 2009 Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. here’s the rest of the story:

Davis, 38, was a 10-year employee of Tarrant County known for her wonderful customer service skills. “She loved people,” Price said. And “everybody loved Allison.”

On Oct. 27, Davis told her supervisor that she felt sick. She was pale and sweaty. The supervisor called Davis’ husband, Matt, and asked him to pick her up.

Matt Davis thought she had the flu. But the next morning, her lips were blue. He rushed her to the doctor, who sent her to an emergency room. From there, she took a CareFlite helicopter ride to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, where she was born. She was placed in intensive care.

But 23 hours after she first complained to her boss, Allison Davis was dead.

Matt Davis told me that he is awaiting autopsy results but that doctors think his wife died of blood poisoning.

The weekend before, his wife threw a surprise birthday party for her mother. On her last night, Matt Davis said, they were going to celebrate Halloween, a few nights away, with a “scary movie and takeout food” — a date night, he called it.

“That was my best friend,” Matt Davis said. “We were still honeymooning.” They were married for nine years.

He said he admired her devotion to her job. “She went above and beyond,” he said. She used to take government forms to people who needed them rather than have them come to the office to pick up the forms.

“She always had a bright smile,” he said. “She was not your typical civil servant. Allison would greet you: ‘Hey, darling. How are you doing? I haven’t seen you. Come up here.’?”

She handled vehicle title transfers, renewals and property tax collection.

“She was a sweet and funny lady,” one woman wrote in Davis’ memorial book linked to her obituary. Then the ultimate compliment: “She made it worth waiting in line.”

The day after Davis died, Price brought a chaplain to the office to talk to employees. “It’s a very tight office,” Price said.

Under civil service rules, county employees may use four hours of emergency time to attend a funeral. They can take off the rest of the day as vacation time.

The employees in Price’s office spent the morning together before the funeral; they took vacation time, Price said.

“We’ve never had a death of an employee,” Price said of her 10 years in office. She decided to let the Granbury Road office staff and one or two senior people from each of the seven other offices attend the funeral. As an elected county official, Price runs her department as she sees fit. While she follows civil service guidelines for employee rules, any decisions about office operations are up to her.

“It was a tough decision,” Price said. “I had never closed an office before. But this was one of those rare exceptions.”

Agreed. In extraordinary circumstances, especially those involving life and death, public officials deserve a break.

What do you think?

Note: The author of this report, Dave Lieber, is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His new book — Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation — won two national book awards for social change in 2009.