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Group buys Romney data to show ease of ID theft

Watchdog group highlights ease of access to personal data

A San Francisco-based consumer watchdog group yesterday highlighted the vulnerability of personal financial data by saying it had obtained Governor Mitt Romney's Social Security number for $30, but even more detailed information was available for the right price.

For an extra $125, the Globe purchased Romney's Trans Union credit report, with a listing of all his credit card accounts, credit card numbers, credit limits, auto leases, and payment history going back more than a year. The credit card numbers alone were enough for someone to purchase virtually anything on the Internet.

The company the Globe dealt with, Goldshield Inc., said it could also provide a listing of the governor's recent purchases on those credit cards for an additional $225.

Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the ease of access to such personal information is a major reason why identity theft is rising so rapidly.

A Federal Trade Commission survey released this month found that 27.3 million Americans experienced identity theft in the past five years, including 9.9 million last year.

Court blamed the problem on corporations that fail to respect consumer privacy rights, exchanging personal financial information too freely with affiliates and other companies.

He said the information inevitably gets diverted or sold to third parties that traffic in such data.

"Almost anything is for sale at the right price," said Court, who also purchased Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's Social Security number from an Internet company.

Romney was fairly muted in response to the invasion of his privacy. He told reporters that the availability of such private information should not come as a surprise to anyone and that state and federal action is needed to address it.

Senator John Hart, the Democratic chairman of the Legislature's Commerce and Labor Committee, said it is now time to address these sorts of privacy concerns.

"Obviously that is troubling that someone can so easily get someone's private information," he said.

Court's foundation yesterday released a report card, grading Massachusetts in nine areas on how well it regulates corporate power.

The state's C grade was average, behind San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, but ahead of Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

"The C grade means that corporate influence is very strong in the culture and threatening to grow. It should be cause for alarm," said Court, the author of "Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom."

In the area of privacy rights, the foundation criticized Massachusetts for failing to require corporations to obtain an individual's permission before selling his or her private information.

The foundation also was critical of the state for allowing corporate influence to seep into public educational institutions. It said the Boston schools, for example, permit a company called Channel One to broadcast a 12-minute news segment each day in the classroom that includes two minutes of youth-oriented advertising. The Boston schools also hope to raise at least $640,000 this year from ads on the outside of the city's 670 elementary and middle school buses. A Boston schools spokesman did not return calls.

Two other companies, Pennsylvania-based Internet Education Concepts and the Illinois-based Field Trip Factory, were mentioned as having a presence in Massachusetts schools. Internet Education provides free computer equipment but requires banner advertising to appear on computer screens. The Field Trip Factory arranges free school field trips to the stores of retail sponsors.

Susan Singer, president of Field Trip Factory, said her organization provides talking scripts for corporate backers who sponsor educational field trips for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. In the Boston area, students go on field trips to a Sports Authority store to learn about fitness, to a Petco store to learn about care for animals, or to a Wild Oats store to learn about shopping for natural foods.

"We're a small company and we're growing rapidly," Singer said.

Massachusetts also was given low marks for allowing sports facilities and some publicly owned facilities to be sponsored and named after corporations.

The foundation also was critical of the large number of signatures necessary to place a referendum question on the state ballot. The foundation said Massachusetts has the shortest petition circulation period in the nation at 64 days and a high signature requirement (roughly 25,000) to get a measure on the ballot.

The state scored better on whistle-blower protections for public employees and environmental controls.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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