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Addresses at DMV Remain Accessible : Privacy: New rules were written to keep information confidential. Critics say there are too many loopholes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I’m lonely and so I thought of you,” began the bizarre message on a Halloween card sent last fall to a 22-year-old woman at her home in Manteca. The message ended chillingly: “I’ll give you one week to respond or I come looking for you.”

The writer was a stranger who had located the woman from her car license plate with help from Department of Motor Vehicle records. He has since pleaded guilty to a charge related to the incident.

The ease with which he obtained the woman’s address illustrates the limitations of a new law that went into effect after the 1989 murder of Rebecca Schaeffer.

Schaeffer, a rising young actress, was gunned down at the security door of her apartment in Los Angeles. Her accused killer allegedly tracked her down with the aid of a private investigator who obtained her address from DMV records.

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The new law was intended to keep such information out of the hands of private detectives and a variety of others who had almost unlimited access to it.

Critics contend that so many loopholes have been written into DMV rules and into the statute that Californians still have no assurance that home addresses listed on car registration forms and driver’s licenses will remain secret.

“If you want to murder someone, you can find them,” said Jeff Crenshaw, a private investigator in Visalia.

Banks, insurance companies, car dealers, wrecking yards and process servers all were exempted from the tough rules. Critics say that virtually anyone can register as a process server for less than $100--the cost of a bond and registration fee.

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Private investigators--many of whom double as process servers--and others who use public records contend that the new law cannot stop a determined attacker who is unconcerned about legality. They also they say that it impedes searches of records by reputable firms seeking information that once was freely available.

DMV officials argue that the law, which went into effect last year, is fulfilling its purpose, making it much more difficult to obtain home addresses except for permitted purposes. The law makes clear the power of the department to fine or prosecute those who abuse their access to confidential information.

“Obviously, a determined bad person is not going to be stopped,” said Kenneth A. Reed, DMV’s information policy manager. “But as far as making it easy, we’ve stopped it.”

State records show that the restrictions on DMV information are repeatedly violated and that the department may not be able to deter--or even detect--instances of abuse of its system, which responds to 110 million information requests each year. The problem is compounded by the fact that car dealers, auto wreckers and others have direct access to the DMV’s computerized files.

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The DMV regularly opens its address files to 14,000 account holders--half of them government agencies and half a mix of attorneys, private investigators, process servers and others.

Audits have uncovered a high percentage of violations of the tough rules designed to restrict the release of addresses.

Through June, DMV officials had found problems with more than one in every four accounts they had audited--120 out of 456. A large number of these cases involved unauthorized use of addresses, particularly among the 1,676 individuals, private investigators and agencies that are registered as process servers. The auditors found that in many instances violators were using the records to check out job applicants, find potential witnesses for court cases, or search for the owners of unclaimed property.

William Cather, who until recently ran the DMV information services office, acknowledged that the auditors found a “substantial number (of problems) for the number of accounts audited. . . . But there is no evidence of significant problems occurring that would, in fact, endanger an individual.”

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“We’re not being easy on people doing bad things,” said Cather, now the DMV’s chief lobbyist.

Despite the many known violations, no one has been prosecuted under the law, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

In the case of the 22-year-old Manteca woman who received the bizarre Halloween message, Edward Jack Vijfvinkel, 31, of Modesto pleaded guilty this month to violating a separate statute--a misdemeanor charge of misrepresenting himself as a private investigator. Prosecutors said he did this to gain access to DMV files on seven individuals, including five women, all in their 20s.

The Vijfvinkel case was brought to light through the efforts of the DMV and Modesto police. According to DMV and court documents, Vijfvinkel allegedly paid $50 to open an account with the DMV that gave him access to a variety of personal data from department files.

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The documents allege that Vijfvinkel would spot attractive young women in their cars and note the license plate number. Then, using DMV records, the rest was easy.

In his Halloween note to one of the women, he wrote: “I looked for you though all I knew about you was your license plate. Now I know more and yet nothing. I know you’re a Libra but I don’t know what it’s like to smell your hair while I’m kissin’ your neck and holdin’ you in my arms.”

Upset by the intimate tone and the fact that Vijfvinkel had obtained her address, the woman called Modesto police. Vijfvinkel bragged to the officer who arrested him that starting with a license plate he could find anyone, and in the process accumulate a lot of information.

The officer noted that Vijfvinkel had in his possession a book titled “You Can Find Anyone,” which spelled out just how to do that.

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In his application for access to DMV records, Vijfvinkel indicated that he was a private investigator--a misrepresentation that led to the misdemeanor charge against him. DMV officials say that at the time, the department made no effort to verify the information through the agency that licenses investigators, but that it does so now.

Vijfvinkel is scheduled to be sentenced this month. The violation calls for maximum jail time of one year.

The move to close public records began with the slaying of Schaeffer, who was co-star of the 1986-88 television sitcom “My Sister Sam.”

Accused of her murder is Robert John Bardo, who allegedly paid $250 to obtain her address from a detective agency in Arizona run by private investigator Anthony Zinkus. Bardo’s trial is set to begin Sept. 25.

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To get the address, Zinkus’ agency turned to Sacramento-based private investigator Robert Wallace, who operates State Records Research. The company is an approved vendor of DMV information to authorized users.

Wallace said his firm never dealt with the general public and now deals only with those approved for access to DMV files. He said he was unaware of the request for Schaeffer’s address when it was processed.

“The rules that DMV now applies to who gets what information are much tighter than they were,” Wallace said. “It used to be that information was disseminated without much thought or care of why the request was made.”

But like a lot of private investigators, Wallace is skeptical that the new restrictions can end abuse, particularly when registered process servers seek address information. “I asked the DMV: ‘How do you know that a person is really using it to serve process?’ The answer was: ‘We don’t.’ ”

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The DMV also has had difficulties with its employees, who have access to the department’s confidential files. One employee was recently prosecuted for altering drunk driving records as part of an alleged insurance fraud. Another DMV worker was fired for releasing protected information to a friend who was a private investigator.

“It’s a tip of the iceberg type of thing,” said Bill Howe, the DMV’s information security officer. He indicated that there were other violations, but that they had been resolved without formal action.

As originally drafted, the bill protected only those motorists who requested confidentiality and gave an alternate mailing address for public release. At the DMV’s request, the bill was amended on the Senate floor to block the release of any residential address--whether or not the individual had requested confidentiality.

From the start, there were exemptions built into the law for banks, insurance companies, government and law enforcement agencies. Through a combination of statutory amendments and government regulations, the list of exemptions was expanded to include attorneys investigating automobile accidents and process servers. News reporters and others who used to have full access to the information were not granted an exemption.

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In a recent interview, former Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), author of the bill, conceded that the changes--and the regulations that implemented the legislation--went further than he intended. He said he is not unhappy with the result.

“I now believe the (department’s) interpretation lies within the best interests of Californians,” he said.

DMV officials themselves are concerned that they are releasing millions of addresses in bulk to companies as permitted by the law when the information is used for statistical purposes. The computerized data--which includes names and addresses--could be used to update commercial data banks, which are virtually beyond the reach of the agency. A number of private investigators say the new restrictions have created a black market for DMV address information.

“Private investigators can still get it,” said Jack Reed, a Fullerton private investigator and a past president of the California Assn. of Licensed Investigators. “They’re going through law enforcement. . . . There is no way to close all the holes.”

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Private investigators are not alone in complaining about the new legislation. Arthur B. Jensen operates JART, an Anaheim business that targets advertising to motorists facing state-required smog checks and relies on information from a 1989 DMV list.

Jensen said the value of the information is diminishing as people sell their vehicles and buy new ones. “Our list is aging and time is running out,” Jensen said.

There have been attempts to amend Roos’ confidentiality bill, specifically to allow access to residential addresses unless there has been a request for confidentiality. But these efforts have run into strong opposition from the unions representing actors and other celebrities.

“It may be inconvenient for some people to locate someone involved in an accident or who hasn’t made a credit payment,” said Pamm Fair, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists in Los Angeles. “But this is really a life-and-death situation for our members.”

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The problems are worse for lesser-known personalities than for superstars, said Mark Locher, a spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild. “Cher and Madonna have the assets to install the best security possible up to and including heavily armed guards,” Locher said, “whereas somebody like Rebecca Schaeffer not only did not know she needed protection but also did not have it.”

There continue to be a number of legal ways to obtain addresses for almost anyone. Some companies produce books full of purported celebrity addresses. Voter registration and property records remain open to the public. The U. S. Postal Service maintains a national change of address system with 90 million up-to-date addresses, all of which are available to the public if the requester has an earlier address.

Lt. John Lane of the Los Angeles Police Department’s threat management unit, said: “It’s safe to say that many of the people who are obsessed with seeking an encounter with an individual are very capable of obtaining home addresses through very devious means. . . . Obviously, the law has to have helped, but no measure can do it totally.”


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