Circuit-court candidates debate privacy issue

Story by Chris Graham

Records on file at your local circuit-court clerk’s office include items that could be used by people with bad intentions to access … your life.

The horror stories are out there – involving how identity thieves have accessed Social Security numbers and mother’s maiden names and copied signatures from records in efforts to basically become the people whose information they have targeted.

And now, with more clerk’s offices moving toward making records that have been available for generations at the courthouse – and only at the courthouse – available to the world at-large via the World Wide Web, the question begs: What steps can be taken to make sure that identity pirates can’t fish through marriage licenses and divorce decrees and warrants and other court files to try to become you?

The answer, according to the six candidates running for the Waynesboro circuit-court clerk’s job, is … not much.

“If people want to see a chance in this area, they need to contact their legislators,” candidate Bruce Allen said at a candidates forum sponsored by the Waynesboro Junior Women’s Club Tuesday night.

“The laws that are on the books now were written for a different world. Things have changed so much in the last 20, 25, 30 years. The information that you can get sitting at your home computer is just unbelievable,” said Allen, a deputy in the Waynesboro sheriff’s office.

“I think identity theft is a big issue that we’ll have to face. But until the laws change from the way they are now, we can’t do anything but follow them to the letter.”

Deputy circuit-court clerk Nikki Armentrout agreed.

“Identity theft is a very real concern,” Armentrout said. “There are records in our office that are open to the public now that contain your signature and other information that could be used. But until the legislature steps in, there’s nothing we can do.”

Geoffrey MacIlwaine, a retail manager and licensed Realtor, said he thinks the Internet can be an asset to the operations of the clerk’s office.

“I’m a firm believer in the freedom of information. I also believe that we can use on-line to make things more efficient,” MacIlwaine said. “It can be costly for attorneys and Realtors, for example, to send people to the offices to get the information they need from the records files.

“I also strongly believe that we need to make every effort to protect information that needs to be kept private. And Social Security numbers and mother’s maiden names should be kept private. The fears of identity theft are very real,” MacIlwaine said.

Candidates Marie Frye, Pete Marks and Wanda Wilson, for their parts, said they will do what they are required to do by state law regarding the dissemination of records information.

“With my background in the banking industry, where records are kept confidential, it is going to be difficult for me to go into an environment where everything is open to the public,” said Frye, the branch manager at the SunTrust bank in Waynesboro.

“I know that we all expect and want to have some sense of privacy, but according to state law, the information filed in this office, with a few exceptions, is public information, so that’s how we have to do things,” Frye said.

“Anybody can come into a clerk’s office and request to look through the files that are on record there. That’s a matter of law,” said Marks, a Waynesboro attorney.

“I understand the concerns related to privacy. I think we all have those concerns. But the legislature requires that this information be made open to the public,” Marks said.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we have a lot of say in the matter,” said Wilson, an office deputy in the Waynesboro sheriff’s office.

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