Franklin County Court Blocks Social Security Searches on its Website

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Worthington police say they’ve identified at least five suspects in an identity theft operation. The scheme unraveled when one of the victims discovered credit being taken out in her name and contacted authorities. The thieves got the information from a surprising source: the Franklin County Municipal Court website.

When Worthington police searched two Columbus-area homes last week, they say they were confronted with hundreds of pairs of shoes – a la Imelda Marcos – and rooms jammed with clothing.

“There were so many clothes; there were some rooms that were piled floor to ceiling with clothes. And it appeared as if they probably weren’t even doing laundry. As soon as a new outfit would get dirty they’d throw it on the floor and pick up a new one,” says Worthington police lt. Doug Francis.

Francis says they also found tax returns, credit card receipts and statements, and a suspect who was willing to talk.

“This was an ingenious yet very simple process where they utilized public information available to us via the internet,” Francis says.

The suspects had logged on to the Franklin County Municipal Court’s website which allows people to search court records. Clerk of Courts Lori Tyack says it’s been operating since 2001.

“It’s a public information website that is able to query our database to find out public information about persons who have court cases before the court. Persons normally will put their own Social Security number in their so they can access their case information whether it’s ‘When is my court date,’ ‘How much do I owe on my ticket,’ those kinds of things are the most asked questions.

The system’s search engine allows the entry of a number of qualifiers to help find records: name, date of birth, driver’s license number, Social Security number. The system did not take into account what Tyack calls “the criminal mind.” Worthington police lt. Francis says the thieves were methodical.

“They started with a given number and they sat there day-in and day-out changing one digit at a time until they got a hit. They did this every day for the last couple of years.”

Their task was made easier because the first three Social Security number digits are region-specific, leaving only six numbers to enter at random.

“What they would do is access someone’s credit, run it up until the credit would be over the limit or the credit card wouldn’t work any more and then they would move to a new one. This is a perfect example of where someone accessed these people’s credit, utilized credit cards that they were not using much, changed addresses so these people never got statements. They were totally unaware,” Francis says.

But the new addresses and the vigilance of consumer – and victim – Meghan Hadden led police to the suspected thieves. It’s also changed the way Franklin County Municipal Court does business according to Clerk Lori Tyack.

“Tuesday afternoon at 2 o’clock we removed the search criteria for Social Security numbers and Driver’s License numbers. It is an unfortunate consequence of providing those search mechanisms,” Tyack says.

Another consequence: background-checking agencies and others can still search by Social Security number, but they have to go to the courthouse to do it. And they have to provide adequate identification of who they are. Lt. Francis says arrests are pending in the case.