Identity theft fears lead to restricted records access

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 19, 2004

DAYTON (AP) - Genealogists, historians and other researchers no longer have easy access to Ohio's birth and death records that they'd enjoyed since 1867.

State officials contend those records were easy pickings for terrorists and criminals wanting to commit identity theft. They have imposed changes that included requiring formal requests to see records and sometimes hefty fee increases.

In the coming weeks, the Ohio Department of Health is to decide whether to further restrict access by confiscating collections of vital statistics in libraries, historical societies and genealogical clubs.

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Before the law changed this summer, Ohio was one of 10 states allowing unrestricted access to public records and didn't require identification from those looking at the records, state health officials said.

The system left Ohioans vulnerable to criminals using forged copies of birth certificates to request passports or open accounts, the agency said.

''There were some entities requesting hundreds of records, at very cheap rates, looking for identity theft victims,'' spokesman Jay Carey said.

Under the state budget enacted in July, counties no longer may issue uncertified copies of vital records from 1908 to the present. Certified copies cost an extra $5. Photocopies that once cost as little as 25 cents a page now must be obtained by formal request at $15 or more per page.

''It's a terrible erosion of public records access,'' said Ann Fenley, a professional genealogist who lives near Dayton. ''They certainly don't think genealogists and researchers are going to pay that much per page. And they happen to be the people who most use those records.''

The Health Department said fee increases are needed to automate and modernize Ohio's outdated record keeping to meet new federal standards. Also, 139 outlets in Ohio were issuing certified documents on differing security paper and with a variety of state seals, making it difficult for outside agencies to verify authenticity.

The new law puts the state agency and local health district registrars in charge of vital statistics.