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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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Push to make birth dates secret stopped as Utah House Bill 370 goes to interim study

In Utah, when both the state Republican and Democratic parties line up against a bill, it’s a bad omen.

That’s what happened with Rep. Brian Greene’s attempt to make birth dates private records under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). Greene, a Pleasant Grove Republican, claimed the bill was needed to protect Utahns from identity theft and elder abuse.

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His bill, HB370, was supposed to make its second appearance before the House Political Subdivisions Committee Wednesday, but the bill has been sent to interim study.

Greene first presented the bill to the committee Monday, arguing that a birth date was one of the key pieces of information that identity thieves need — the others being name and Social Security number — and the state shouldn’t be handing it out to anyone who buys voter rolls or looks at court records.

"It just seems — I don’t know if ironic is the right word — but troubling when we have our own state attorney general’s office and other state agencies saying protect that birth-date information, that we don’t have a policy in the state making that information private," Greene said. "We disclose that information to anyone who is willing to pay for it."

But Matt Lyon, the Utah Democratic Party’s executive director, and Jeff Peterson, deputy victory director of the Utah GOP, said the two parties opposed the bill. The parties use the information to identify voters and help them find where to vote and tell them which candidates are on the ballot.

Lyon said birth dates can help parties target younger voters and improve voter turnout overall, with no risk of someone’s identity being stolen.

"There is no recorded case of identity fraud occurring … by someone pulling information off the voting records," Lyon said.

They also submitted a letter signed by GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis urging the committee to kill the bill.

They were not the only ones aruging the bill would do more harm than good.

Mike Bailey, with Lexis-Nexus, said that having access to birth dates in records allows his clients to identify people and prevent fraud, especially when dealing with two people who have the same name.

Mike Sontag, with Bear River Mutual insurance, said the insurance industry needs to be able to see a list of accidents by age group so it can better assess whether a young driver is a greater risk than others.

And Jacey Skinner, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, said the bill would make it harder for people to identify convicted criminals who may share the same name as an innocent person. The birth date eliminates that confusion, Skinner said.

While the Attorney General’s identity theft website said to be wary of telemarketers trying to get personal information, including birth dates, it does not list public records as a source identity thieves turn to. Instead, identity thieves will use phishing scams to lure people into providing sensitive information, steal mail or go Dumpster diving to find papers with the information they seek.

And, as an identity-theft victim, I know for a fact that this bill would do absolutely nothing to stop identity theft.

When I was attending Brigham Young University years ago, I got a call asking me to come down to the Provo Police Department about a stolen check. After going through handwriting analysis, I was cleared of being a thief and informed that I was a victim of an identity thief. Someone had taken a check from a student on campus and cashed it at a local bank in my name, using a student ID card with my name and student number (which happened to be my Social Security number).

Then, I got a statement from a credit union about "my" account, and notices that "I" was writing bad checks all over Utah Valley. The police, in hopes of catching the thief, decided to keep my name on BYU’s blacklist, the rouge’s gallery of people whose checks have bounced and are not to be cashed on campus.

That move essentially froze me out of my own account at a time when I was trying to court a young lady. Meanwhile, the police had to write letters to the collection agencies to let them know I wasn’t the one writing the rubber checks, which totalled more than $5,000.

Eventually, the thieves turned themselves in, and when they came to me to apologize, I asked them how they did it. They told me they picked my name and student number at random from a class roll. (Ironically, the class in question was "Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ.") With that, they were able to get the university to make a new student ID, with one of their pictures and my name on it.

They didn’t have my birth date, and they didn’t file a public records request. Greene’s bill wouldn’t have helped me, nor any other identity-theft victim. The thieves are just not stupid enough to make a records request. Instead, the law would close off access to information that helps journalists and the public distinguish between two people who share a common name.

Oh, and that young lady I was trying to date during that episode? We’re celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this year.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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