Personal information there for the taking in Jackson County garbage bin
|Nicole Sack (The Southern)|
|6/15/2005 – MURPHYSBORO – Amanda Riegger stared down at the thick file.
“You got that out of his dumpster?” she asked as she looked at the printed name of the man she had recently filed an order of protection against.
“No, the courthouse dumpster.”
Riegger’s eyes widened as she realized her very personal information had been tossed away and was now in the hands of a stranger.
Less than two weeks ago, the 18-year-old Murphysboro woman requested a restraining order from an ex-boyfriend whom she said has threatened her life.
She doesn’t have to tell the story, because in the file that was “trashed” by Jackson County are Riegger’s handwritten accounts of an abusive relationship that turned vicious.
Her documents, along with many others, were retrieved from an unlocked recycling bin behind the courthouse, the same place where on May 25 she went to seek protection.
“I don’t like this at all,” Riegger said. “It seems like the courthouse would be into shredding instead of just throwing these things in the dumpster. I want to go over to the courthouse and yell at someone about it, but then I’d probably get arrested.”
Her mother, Sue Riegger, was also dumbfounded that documents like her daughter’s, which included Social Security and driver’s license numbers, were being tossed out by the county without being shredded or altered.
“They go after little people for stuff like this, but at the courthouse it’s all right,” Sue Riegger said. She is even suspicious of documents that are shredded, believing if someone was determined enough, they could still piece together information.
Amanda Riegger doesnâ€’t believe it would take that much.
“Why spend a lot of time trying to put those shredded pieces of paper together, when at the courthouse they can just pull them out whole? And what is the point of spending money on a lock if you’re not going to use it?”
While Riegger talked the situation over with her mother and her new boyfriend, she wanted another answer: “If this can happen to me, who else can this happen to?”
In an age when personal information is heavily guarded to prevent identity theft, some people are concerned that Jackson County is serving up documents with names, addresses, Social Security and driver’s license to anyone willing to dip into the courthouse dumpster.
Behind the Jackson County Courthouse is a large recycling bin. But for those with motives, it could be seen as a treasure chest. Copies of arrest cards, complaints and circuit clerk documents are there for the taking. And while there are locks on the recycling bin, on five separate occasions they were not locked.
Even for a novice, it takes only a few blind grabs to retrieve something juicy. There are a few shredded papers, from the County Clerk’s Office, but what one office conceals doesn’t make up for what other offices contribute to the trash pile.
On Riegger’s photocopied file is the stamp of the Circuit Clerk’s Office indicating the documents were filed on May 25. Jackson County Circuit Clerk Cindy Svanda was asked if her office had a shredder.
“I’m busy,” Svanda said. “I don’t have time for this.”
The circuit clerk’s office has a budget of $486,948 for the current fiscal year.
Shown the same bundle of forms and asked the same questions, Jackson County State’s Attorney Mike Wepsic he thought the findings were signs of a slow news day.
“What do you want me to do about it? I’m not the Dumpster guy,” Wepsic said. “If the county wants to buy me a shredder, that’s great.”
The state’s attorney’s office has a budget of $915,708 for the 2004-2005 fiscal years.
Wepsic reiterated his statement on the matter: “No comment. Slow news day.”
The county clerk’s office shreds documents.
Jackson County Judge William Schwartz, who has presided at the courthouse for 19 years, said while there is nothing illegal about how the county handles its recyclables, it is not very wise.
“I think most of the stuff you are finding can be found in court documents,” Schwartz said. “But as public officials, there must be care taken that a lot of those things aren’t made available to just anyone.
Personally, I go to some lengths to make sure my private documents aren’t just flying around in a landfill somewhere. In this day and age, when we are very concerned about identity theft, I think it is worth the extra time to protect individuals.”
Schwartz has had one of his own family members victimized by identity theft.
“It was a scary experience,” he said.
According to recent Better Business Bureau study, 9.3 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2004. During the past five years 27.3 million Americans have been victims of identity theft. Most thieves still obtain personal information through traditional rather than electronic channels. In the cases where the method was known, 68.2 percent of information was obtained offline as opposed to only 11.6 percent obtained online.
There is no state law requiring the destruction of such duplicate materials, according to Dave Joens, state archives director for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. While no county is legally bound to destroy documents with personal information, other Southern Illinois officials say it is good practice to take the precautionary step, since “dumpster diving” is not illegal either.
Pope County Circuit Judge Donald Lowery said that county burns or shreds sensitive documents before tossing them out.
“That is the way we’ve done it since I’ve been a judge,” said Lowery, who has served on the bench for 25 years. “There are no public records that are just disposed in the garbage. When a government agency throws out Social Security and driver’s license numbers, they are basically saying ‘Come and get it.’ Those public officials are remiss to so carelessly dispose of such documents.”
Lowery said everyone who goes through the courthouse should be protected equally, regardless of the circumstances.
The Federal Trade Commission enacted The Disposal Rule June 1, which requires any person or individual to properly dispose of information derived from a consumer report. The rule was spurred by a Florida senator who had become a victim of a mortgage firm that was throwing complete consumer reports in the garbage.
Catherine Armstrong, an attorney at the FTC’s division of financial practices, said the new rule covers anyone who uses consumer reports for business purposes.
“This includes lenders, insurers and individuals who pull consumer reports on prospective home employees, such as nannies or contractors,” Armstrong said. “The goal is to prohibit identity theft that can occur when sensitive information is available.”
While the rule is broad as to who is required to destroy information, it is specific to consumer reports but not documents in the realm of public information the Jackson County Courthouse deals with.
Although the Disposal Rule applies to consumer reports and information derived from consumer reports, the FTC encourages those who dispose of any records containing a consumer’s personal or financial information take similar protective measures.
Marcy Salem is familiar with the new FACTA laws. Salem and her husband operate In a Pinch Shredding in Herrin.
“If you deal with personal information, you don’t have to shred, but you can’t just throw it away,” Salem said.
Their massive paper eating machine can put any office shredder to shame. She said it costs about $30 to destroy 100 pounds of paper.
Salem said she did see a blur in the line between matters of public record and confidential information.
“But do it think it is right that this information is just being thrown out at the courthouse?” Salem asked. “No, not at all.”