March 4, 2010

Bill would restrict some public records

One expert says he does not know of a single case of identity theft involving birth or marriage records.

By GLENN ADAMS The Associated Press

AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers heard arguments Wednesday for a bill that would restrict the release of birth and marriage records as a way to combat fraud and identity theft.

Christine Zukas-Lessard, deputy director of the state Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Health and Human Services Committee that Maine is one of only 11 states that allow public inspection of birth records or the issuance of certified copies to anyone who requests them. Maine marriage records also are open to the public.

She said the policy opens the door to identity theft and fraud.

The bill before lawmakers would limit release of those records "to all of those who have a direct and legitimate interest in the recorded event," Zukas-Lessard said. Those include the persons on the document, parents or guardians, descendants and designated agent or attorney.

The state CDC noted that marriage certificates may contain the current addresses of the bride and groom. Because of that, the state receives numerous requests from law enforcement officials every year to restrict access to some records in order to protect individuals from stalking and domestic abuse.

"In the absence of a court order, we are unable to legally comply with these requests," said Zukas-Lessard.

State police say most of the fraud cases they encounter involve credit cards, but the agency has no figures on how many crimes had a connection to birth and marriage records.

ID Safety, a Web site sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Bank of America, says that in 2007 there were 530 complaints of identity theft in Maine, 45th highest among the states. But the report did not show how many cases stemmed from misuse of birth or marriage records.

A public records expert and advocate said Wednesday he does not know of a single case of identity theft in Maine or elsewhere involving birth or marriage records.

Charles Davis, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said he doesn't question the motivation behind the Maine bill. But "I think we just have to be more critical of these rationales."

The most common scenario for ID theft and fraud involves family members, he said. Fraud also is committed "on a massive scale online," he said.

"Whenever we close access to public information, there needs to be an urgent reason to do so," Davis said in a telephone interview.

No one spoke against the bill during the hearing.


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