Your life is just a stroke away Public, private snoops can learn all about you on data bases

July 21, 1996|By Kristin Davis

WOULD YOU rather keep mum about the size of your inheritance? The number of times you've been nailed for speeding? How much you paid for your house -- or still have left to pay? How about the intimate details of your divorce settlement? Sorry, but all that is likely to be a matter of public record. And these days that means it's only a keystroke away.

Years ago someone would at least have had to use up some shoe leather to do the kind of sleuthing -- or snooping -- necessary to peer into the details of your life. But today, public records reside by the gigabyte in data bases open to anyone with a computer and a modem.

Private investigators and amateur busybodies aren't the only ones wallowing in computerized data. Credit-fraud artists can hit a mother lode of Social Security and credit card numbers by tapping into electronic credit reports and other computer files. Less sinister but more pervasive are direct marketers who have perfected the art of scrounging data from all sorts of sources to create profiles of the best prospects.

If computers make it easier to intrude on hour privacy today, what will happen as we begin piling on to the information superhighway -- and banks, brokerages and retailers invite us to do more and more business online? How can you protect yourself from faceless cyber-Fagins out to pick your pockets?

From the day you get your birth certificate, the government collects data about you. There's documentation when you get a driver's license, buy a car, register to vote, get married, buy a house, have children, license your pet, get a speeding ticket -- or otherwise violate the law -- start a business, refinance or remodel your house, sue someone -- or get sued -- get divorced, file for bankruptcy, or inherit property through a probate court. Anyone with a computer and a modem can search many of those records from any desktop in the country.

"The average person, by using public data bases, could build a pretty good picture of your life and your financial transactions," says Al Schweitzer, an information broker in Chino, Calif.

Making the job even easier are one-stop-shopping data companies, such as CDB Infotek, in Santa Ana, Cal. For a modest subscription fee plus about $5 to $20 per search, customers can scan any of Infotek's thousands of public records data bases -- electronic versions of county, state and federal court filings, tax assessors' rolls and department of motor vehicle records, among other files. Among the companies' most voracious customers: employers, journalists and private detectives.

"I can do in one hour what ten years ago would have taken a week to do," says Edmund Pankau, owner of Intertect, a private-investigation firm in Houston. A Phoenix bank recently paid him to check out three potential borrowers. In less than an hour at the keyboard, Pankau found that one had filed for bankruptcy, another had been charged with fraud and the third was involved in a messy divorce that was tying up his money. Pankau advised the bank to turn down the loan requests.

Why else might someone want to check you out? If you're in an auto accident or a worker is injured in your home, a lawyer might like to know how deep your pockets are. A nationwide computer search could quickly turn up assets such as a second home, luxury car or boat.

Employers use public records for pre-employment checks, and the law allows them to view your credit report too. Errors in any data base can be devastating. Beth Givens, project director for the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, says callers to the group's hot line -- (619) 298-3396 -- complain of sailing through job interviews only to be dropped suddenly after a series of rejections -- until a prospective employer volunteered that the applicant's name was on what amounts to a computerized blacklist of employees fired for shoplifting. His file was tainted by the record of an employee with a similar name.

Of course, there's a lot of financial information about you that's supposedly not open to the public: your bank account and credit card numbers, your brokerage records, your Social Security records and your tax returns. That's stuff any financial thief would like to have . . . and can get all too easily.

With your name, address and credit card number, a crook can run up charges in your name. With your bank account number, it's possible for someone to tap into your account. Your brokerage account number and Social Security number are typically all an impostor needs to check your balance or even order unauthorized trades. These valuable numbers are stored in countless electronic files, and they're not kept under digital lock and key.

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