Sunday, April 03, 2005

Law of Unintended Consequences reigns supreme

More than 5,000 bills were filed at the Texas Legislature this year. Before they even got started, 1,941 separate acts had already been declared a felony, with possibly more to come. Still, the Law of Unintended Consequences reigns supreme.

I've written about my fears that Texas' rapid adoption of new biometric personal identification technology in drivers licenses could lead to unintended consequences like computer password theft on a massive scale. ID theft at Choicepoint is in the news right now, but it can also happen to government. The University of Texas not long ago had social security numbers of some 55,000 students and alumni stolen from their supposedly secure system. Bottom line, new threats are emerging that stem directly from the practice of aggregating personal information about individuals in a way that can facilitate its mass theft, so new electronic gadgetry designed to enhance security might actually make us less safe.

Another example of just that phenomenon may be found in
today's San Antonio Express News. Taking their lead from the Republic of Texas nutballs who ran a loan scam based on phony liens filed with the Texas Secretary of State, apparently all over the country prisoners and others are filing retaliatory phony liens against public officials. Liens are legal notices filed with the state so creditors will be aware of a person's existing debt. While they are not legally valid when no legitimate debt exists, in theory others might deny services until it was resolved.

Governor Perry has had more than 200 phony liens filed against him by people fraudulently claiming he owes them money, the paper reported. This practice
popularized in Texas and elsewhere among militia groups has recently proliferated beyond nutball politics and cropped up nationwide as a means to harass public officials. So why is this a problem now? Because in 2001 the entire nation shifted to an electronic lien filing system that did not institute adequate safeguards. Reports the Express-News' Lisa Sandberg:

While the penalties for filing a false notice have stiffened in recent years — a repeat offender can be charged with a second-degree felony — the filing process has been simplified, making fraudulent filings easier than ever.

Under a revised code adopted by all 50 states in 2001, lien notices no longer are required to contain a debtor's signature — a change made to accommodate the surge in electronic filings. Online filers now pay $5 per notice, not the $35 required for paper submissions.

Only space determines the number of names that can be squeezed onto a page or into a file, said Randy Moes, who heads the Texas Secretary of State's UCC section.

So, in order to facilitate e-filing, the law was changed to allow creditors to file public notice of caimed debt WITHOUT THE DEBTOR'S SIGNATURE. Unbelievable, but true. The rush to shift to an electronic system insensibly caused all 50 states to agree to delete the primary accountability mechanism to ensure the integrity of the lien process - the consent of the debtor. Hard to believe nobody thought of that, but here we are.

Texas prisoners don't have access to the Internet, so if the Secretary of State says online filing is responsible for the increase in phony liens filed, all that's occurring in the free world. The article's focus on "cons," in that regard, seemed incongruous. Still, the deletion of the requirement of a debtor's signature apparently applies to paper liens, too, so prisoners can file them for $35 like the example in the story, instead of $5 for electronic ones. Thus the problem multiplies even with old-style paper liens.

Somebody - strike that, a LOT of bodies - must have been asleep at the switch when that piece of junk passed.

I'm sure all the new electronic gadgetry sounds wonderful when the vendor pitches it behind closed doors in the conference room, but we've got to start looking before we leap, people.

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