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Identity Theft Dangers in Massachusetts

Thursday, April 12, 2012


A GoLocalWorcester investigation has uncovered how the Massachusetts Public Records law is putting Bay Staters at risk of identity theft. Currently, anyone can walk into a town or city clerk’s office and ask for someone’s birth, death or marriage certificate with no proof of identity needed, just a check to pay for the copy of the document.

Two weeks ago, a Massachusetts prisoner was charged in federal court with participating in a scheme to use other people’s identities to steal money while he was sitting in prison. According to the complaint, Shawn Robert Pelley, 36, of Centerville, obtained a copy of the birth certificate of a person identified as R.P.O. He then had someone get a copy of R.P.O.'s driver's license from the Massachusetts RMV. Pelley allegedly had someone open a bank account in R.P.O.’s name and withdrew substantial sums in cash.

Many of Massachusetts’ clerks are concerned that anyone can request a stranger's birth certificate, including Worcester’s assistant Clerk Susan Ledoux.

"All someone has to do is give me a person’s name and their date of birth and I have to give them a copy of that birth certificate, assuming they pay the $12 fee. It makes me uncomfortable. Am I being over cautious? Maybe. However, it is a document that anyone requires when establishing a line of credit"

Ledoux said it is a public record and she has no right to refuse someone’s request.

How these public records can be used to hurt your credit

If the wrong person gets a hold of your birth certificate you can be at risk of identity theft, and your credit can be badly damaged. A birth certificate can be used to get your driver's license, apply to college, apply for a passport, cash a check, secure a loan, open credit accounts, rent an apartment, buy a car and purchase a cell phone. 

Ways to protect your credit

Barbara Anthony, Undersecretary for the Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation, said identity thieves can steal your personal information through a variety of ways including your birth certificate. Anthony said, “We are concerned that someone can steal your identity by obtaining your birth certificate….However, these are public records, it is part of being a free society. We are all in charge of our own credit history.”

Anthony recommends getting a free credit report once a year. Anthony, said, “Identity thieves aren’t stupid, if they got your birth certificate and got credit in your name, they wouldn’t send the bill to your house. They would send it to another address, so you wouldn’t know until it was too late. Getting a copy of your credit report once a year protects you."

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. 

Clerks want lawmakers to be proactive

Agawam clerk Richard Theroux agrees that everyone should actively protect their identity, but be believes Beacon Hill lawmakers need to protect their constituents. Theroux said, “I think the laws of the Commonwealth concerning marriage, birth and death records, and their accessibility to the public, are outrageously outdated.”

Theroux said the reason the public records law has not been updated is because lawmakers create and change laws as a result of an event. “Lawmakers are reactive, not proactive. It won’t be changed until there’s a high profile case where someone uses a birth record to create an identity."

Theroux said there have been times when he questions why someone wants a record, and assumes it might be for the wrong reasons, but his hands are tied. Theroux said, “I had an example of someone who wanted information on birth and death records of kids that died at young ages, and I questioned his reason for it, but I had no law to back me up to stop him.”

State Rep.'s response to the outdated law

Worcester State Representative John Mahoney was not aware of this issue, but is willing to do something about it. Mahoney said, “If Clerks see it as a problem and they want us to help out with, I would be interested in helping change the law. ID theft is changing day by day. Making sure my constituents' identities remain secure is something I will always advocate for."

Brian McNiff from the Secretary of State’s Office said under the public records law all government records are public, including marriage, birth and death certificates. McNiff said there are certain exemptions, which can be found in Chapter 46 of the law.

Online public record concerns

Lizzi Weyant is the staff attorney for MASSPIRG, Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. Weyant said public records that are available online are a major concern for identity theft as well. Weyant said, "We at MASSPIRG are very concerned about identity theft. The biggest problem has always been related to bulk availability, particularly online. If the bulk availability of identities has stopped, then certainly one-at-a-time-requests would be the next big concern." 


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