Identity theft victim wins right to sue county clerk over posting of personal data

Ohio appeals court reverses dismissal of lawsuit claiming that posting of speeding-ticket image violated privacy laws

An Ohio woman whose identity was allegedly stolen after an image of a speeding ticket containing her personal information was posted on a county government Web site can sue the county official responsible for putting such records online, a state appeals court in Cincinnati ruled last week.

The appeals court reversed a trial judge's decision to dismiss an identity theft lawsuit filed by Ohio resident Cynthia Lambert against Greg Hartmann, the clerk of courts for the state's Hamilton County, which is centered around Cincinnati. Last week's ruling (download PDF) allows Lambert to reinstate her legal claims that Hartmann violated Ohio's Privacy Act, invaded her privacy and unlawfully published "private facts" by posting her personal data on his office's Web site.

The ruling is the latest in a series of controversies involving county governments across the U.S. posting public records containing sensitive personal data on publicly accessible Web sites. Earlier this month, for instance, the Iowa County Recorders Association said it would disable online access to mortgage documents and personal financing statements on a statewide land-records Web site after concerns were raised about the possible compromise of Social Security numbers that are included in some of the documents.

Over the past few years, privacy advocates have warned that county Web sites have become a treasure trove for identity thieves and other fraudsters, and they have pushed government officials to redact personal data from online copies of public records.

The case in Ohio stems from a speeding ticket that Lambert received in September 2003. The ticket, which included her name, Social Security number, driver's license number, home address, birth date and signature, was filed with the Hamilton County clerk's office, and an image of it was posted on the clerk's Web site as part of a policy to make public records available online.

According to court documents, about a year after Lambert received the ticket, she was notified by two separate retailers of large purchases made by someone using her name. Lambert said in her legal filings that a Sam's Club store told her a woman who showed a driver's license that purportedly was hers had bought $8,000 worth of electronics. In addition, a Home Depot store informed Lambert of $12,000 in purchases made by an individual who had opened a credit-card account in her name, again using a fake driver's license.

Lambert claimed that the information used to steal her identity came from the online image of the speeding ticket. She pointed out in her filings that the number on the driver's license used at the stores was different from hers by one digit — exactly how the number had appeared on the county clerk's Web site because of a recording error by the police officer who issued the ticket.

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