Testing the Limits

By Diane Haddad Premium

Genealogists seeking South Dakota vital records can breathe a sigh of relief. The state legislature relaxed restrictions in SB41, a bill initially drafted to bar most public access to birth, death and marriage certificates.

In its original form, SB41 would’ve limited records access to the person named in the document, certain family members (spouses, children, parents, guardians, next of kin) and authorized representatives (lawyers, doctors, funeral home directors). Genealogists and members of the media said the bill — intended to prevent identity theft and increase security against terrorism — was unnecessarily restrictive and punished researchers along with would-be criminals.

An amendment added at the state health department’s request Jan. 31 lets researchers get uncertified photocopies of the original documents. But it also allows county and health department clerks to withhold copies of certificates for up to three days if they’re suspicious of a request.

Neither the original nor the amended form of SB41 restricts access to birth records older than 100 years, and death, marriage and divorce records older than 50 years. The state senate approved the amendment and Gov. Michael Rounds signed the legislation in February.

South Dakota is the latest state to jump on the records-restriction bandwagon — see our E-mail Update newsletter <> to read about access fracases in California (Dec. 13, 2001, edition) and Ohio (Nov. 20, 2003). But will restrictions really prevent identity theft?

Not according to the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) 2005 Identity Fraud Survey Report <>, based on 4,000 consumer interviews. Nearly a third of identity-theft victims who knew the criminals’ methods said a lost or stolen wallet or checkbook led to the crime. Other reported causes: pilfered mail or garbage, offline transactions (such as an in-store purchase), computer hacking, online transactions and e-mail fraud. In half of the cases, the thieves were relatives or acquaintances of the victims.

Conspicuously missing from that list: birth and death certificates. Although legislators have targeted vital-records access as a fraud risk, no survey respondents linked their identity theft to documents obtained from a county health office. The BBB also reports identity theft has declined: 10.1 million were victims in 2003, and 9.3 million in 2004.
From the June 2005 Family Tree Magazine 

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