THE PLANK JULY 31, 2009
Annie Lowrey is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Around July 10, just before Barack Obama's landmark trip to Accra, Ghana, a man from that country allegedly calling himself "Henry Paulson" phoned the office of Congressman Robert Wexler, a Democrat of Florida. He let the office know that he had the congressman and his wife's Social Security numbers and wanted $30,000 wired to a branch of Barclay's bank in Accra--or else, he'd put the numbers on the internet for criminals to use. The Ghanaian extorter supposedly recited their Socials over the phone to make his point.
As it turns out, "Henry Paulson" isn't a very good criminal. He's already in jail in Accra, awaiting trial for his attempted extortion. But how did this whole thing happen? Blame it on Betty "BJ" Ostergren, a loquacious 60-year-old who lives outside of Richmond, Virginia.
The story actually begins on August 27, 2002. Ostergren and her husband were sitting at home watching television when the phone rang. "You don't know me, but I know you," the caller told her. "And something's going to happen only you can stop." According to Ostergren, "He informed me my husband and I had paid off our mortgage in 1995, which was true!"
Those were just the words to enrapture her--a self-described "pit bull on steroids" of a local citizen activist. The man, a local government employee, was outraged that the county was going to put online a whole spate of public court documents with private information, like Ostergren's deed, in three weeks. He wanted her to help stop it. And ever since, Ostergren (whose husband was the victim of identity theft twice in the 1980s) has ever since fought a tooth-and-nail battle to keep as many documents off the web as possible.
Her primary technique? Doing what that county employee did to her that August night. She calls people--state senators, highway patrol officers, regular citizens--basically anyone save for single mothers or abused women--and reads them their Social over the phone. It gets their attention "real quick," she notes. "I've been after them!" Ostergren says. "These websites are spoon-feeding criminals! It's stupid! Hear me--use that word--stupid! These numbers are all over the internet, put online by state agencies and elected officials! There are millions of them!"
And because of Ostergren's activism, it hadn't taken much for "Henry Paulson" to find Wexler and his wife's Social Security numbers. They were online--along with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's, and Colin Powell's, and much of the Virginia state legislature's--on the "The Virginia Watchdog" website Ostergren runs to shame public officials into changing privacy laws.
Wexler's office seems to wish they had listened. They immediately informed the Secret Service and Capitol police when "Henry Paulson" called. They set up a kind of sting, pretending to be Wexler over the phone and arranging Eric Agbosu's arrest by the Ghanaian police. And a week ago, after "Henry Paulson" had been arrested, Wexler emailed Ostengren himself, to ask her to remove his private information from her website.
"Dear Mr. Osergren," he wrote, inauspiciously. "In recent days I have been the subject of an extortion attempt where the criminal found my information on your site. Others are now setting up accounts in my name and that of my wife. I was respectfully wondering if you would be willing to remove my personal information from your site in order to limit the damage to my credit."
This did not go over well down in Virginia. "It's stupid!" Ostergren says. She wrote Wexler back: "I do not know of any of your efforts in Congress. My issue is not a congressional issue. It is a ‘state' issue which can only be solved and remedied by state legislatures. Your SSN has been online thanks to some idiot Florida Court Clerk and available to the world for many years as are many millions of others all over this country."
And of the hundreds of Socials publicized on Ostergren's site? She has fought repeated court battles to keep them up. (One case is currently in appeals.) And until Wexler does do something to ensure Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, and other sensitive information doesn't end up online--she has no intention of taking his down.