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Calif. halts birth-record sales to Web sites

Gov. Gray Davis suspends the sale of birth and death records to private companies. The concern: The records could be used to steal identities.

California Gov. Gray Davis late Wednesday suspended the sale of birth and death records to private companies, which have published the data online, on concerns that the records could be used to steal identities.

"A person's birth and death records should not be bought and traded like baseball cards," Davis said in a statement. "There is too great a risk that unscrupulous people will use this information for identity theft, to falsify records, or to invade our privacy in other ways."

The move follows a dustup among California legislators after they learned the Department of Health and Human Services sold the records to several companies that published the data online. Concerned that data contained in the records could be used as building blocks to ID theft, Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco and San Mateo, asked the governor last week to stop such sales.

In one example, genealogical Web site bought birth records for more than 24 million Californians dating from 1905 to 1995 for about $900. Last week, the company removed databases of both California and Texas birth records from its site after it received a blitz of phone calls from frantic citizens.

The data included names, birth dates, places of birth and mothers' maiden names, a key ingredient to accessing customer financial information at many banks and credit card companies.

Access to personal data contained in public records is of mounting concern to lawmakers and privacy experts since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which one suicide bomber is suspected of using a deceased person's Social Security number to create false identification.

Although personal information contained on research Web sites alone typically is not enough to steal someone's identity, lawmakers and privacy advocates are concerned that the data could be used in creating false IDs.

Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States--particularly in California, which has one of the highest number of complaints per capita nationwide, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Davis halted the release of birth and death records to private companies for 45 days. During that period, the health agency will be asked to create measures to prevent the release of similar information in compliance with public information law.