Sale of Pa. drivers' records causes ID theft concern

Greg Gross
  • PennDOT generates about $41 million annually through the sale of drivers' records
  • That money is used to fund transportation initiatives
  • But if the information fell into the wrong hands, it could lead to identity theft

The state Department of Transportation makes tens of millions of dollars each year selling drivers' information, but it also could  be making Pennsylvanians more vulnerable to identity theft, according to one local security expert.

Although the department has been selling the records for years, some lawmakers now are questioning the practice — and they at least want the revenue shifted to the state's general fund.

There are just fewer than 9 million drivers in Pennsylvania, and the sale of their records, mainly for car insurance purposes, generates about $41 million annually.

John Weaver, assistant professor of intelligence analysis at York College, said information, such as someone's name, home address, date of birth and license number, potentially gleaned from the records could be a large piece of the puzzle to hijacking a person's identity.

"All you would really need is the Social Security number, and you can do some damage," Weaver said.

However, the state Department of Transportation doesn't include a person's Social Security number with driving records, said spokeswoman Alexis Campbell.

Who has access: The data is sold to seven wholesalers, she said, and is used by credit agencies, insurance companies and employers to validate someone's driving record.

The information is accessed when someone applies for insurance, credit or a job that requires driving, Campbell said.

PennDOT has safeguards in place to prevent  wholesalers from selling the information to third parties and prohibits the records from being used for marketing purposes or any way other than intended. Wholesalers have to sign an agreement that they will abide by the rules.

Customers enter the PennDOT Photo License Center at Runkle's Notary in York City Monday, June 6, 2016. Bill Kalina photo

"If they don't, we cut them off from access," Campbell said.

Still, one state lawmaker wants tougher safeguards.

In May, state Rep. Robert Matzie, D-Beaver County, introduced House Bill 2039, which would make it unlawful for third parties to sell driver and vehicle records obtained through PennDOT.

Included in those records are a driver's name, gender, home address, license number, license class and issue dates, any violations and other pertinent information, such as medical restrictions. Driver records can go back three or 10 years or include an individual’s entire driving history.

Citing Edward Snowden, the former CIA operative who gave out national security information to journalists, Weaver said the question of who has access to drivers' records at the wholesaler, insurance company, credit agency and employer levels could be a cause for concern.

"It just takes one person with uncontrolled access to a treasure trove of information for damage to be done," he said.

How money is used: The state uses the revenue generated through the sale of information to fund transportation initiatives, Campbell said.

But now a group of Republican lawmakers wants the money shifted out of PennDOT's hands.

The Taxpayers Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, and Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said the money should be used to address the state's deficit. The lawmakers' report also called the sale of records questionable.

Campbell noted the practice is authorized by legislation and the Legislature in 2013 increased the fee charged for each record from $5 to $8 when it approved the transportation funding plan, also known as Act 89. The fee was increased again, this time to $9 per record, last year.

Moving the money out of PennDOT, as the lawmakers suggested, appears unlikely.

"These funds are committed already," Campbell said.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @ggrossyd.