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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Want to protect yourself from ID theft? Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded in a 2012 edition, the book won two national book awards for social change. 

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