Intermountain Jewish News

Nov 30th
Home Columns Ancestral Discovery Stealing our ancestors?

Stealing our ancestors?

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Recently, I was told by my credit union that there had been a security breach for cardholders, and they were issuing new cards to prevent any further problems. This kind of situation is becoming more common as technology advances, especially in the arena of identity theft. Why am I writing about this?

Because genealogy is affected by this trend everyday.

Here are some common fears we hear about when people are trying to steal our identity:

Fear: People use genealogical databases to get your mother’s maiden name.

Reality: We often hear about financial institutions and others asking for our mother’s maiden name. While this still happens occasionally, it is increasingly rare, just as social security number requests are being phased out, and often there are alternatives to giving these specific items. Also, there are often many mistakes in online databases, especially family histories that are unverified.

Fear: Thieves go to cemeteries to get names and dates from our ancestors to use.

Reality: While this rarely happened in the past, that information is fairly useless without an accompanying social security number.

Fear: Thieves use the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) to get our ancestors social security numbers to use.

Reality: Again, while this happened a few times in the past, it almost never happens now. Additionally, it usually doesn’t work, simply because merchants and institutions routinely check numbers given to them by customers against the SSDI, through their credit card company.

More important, obtaining and using this information is on a retail level, compared with the wholesale capturing and illegal use of information. Simply put, it’s a lot more work to get these specific pieces of information from genealogical databases, compared with simply stealing a laptop or hacking into a database to get hundreds of thousands of names.

Because of the above fears, there a number of calls by misinformed legislators and others to close or significantly restrict access of databases that are of vital use to genealogists. Particularly vulnerable are vital records — birth, marriage, divorce and death records held by local or state governments.

There are no known cases of identity thefts involving these kind of records, yet they are easy targets for the overzealous.

The Records Preservation and Access Committee (, a joint committee of the National Genealogical Society and Federation of Genealogical Societies, said this on their website:

“An Associated Press study of state laws passed in the five years after 9/11 found that more than 1,000 laws regarding access to records were passed. Of these, for every one law that gave greater access there were more than two laws that restricted access.”

Fortunately, genealogists, historians, journalists, archivists and other researchers are monitoring this trend, while educating legislators and other government officials and, if necessary, fighting the restriction of this public information. So when you hear of people talking about identity theft, help educate people about the real facts of how it predominately happens.


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