Missing persons are the perfect targets for identity theft, according to a local paralegal professor. A recent arrest involving the name of an Alma girl who has been missing since 1995 has some questioning the security of online services that provide personal information and documents.
Tonya Renee Smith, 24, of Hollister, Mo., is behind bars, accused of trying to assume the identity of Morgan Nick. Police say she used a website called VitalCheck to attempt to obtain Nick’s birth certificate.
"I'm surprised that somebody went after Morgan Nick because of how high profile her case was,” said Lynn Lisk, a paralegal professor at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith. “But I'm not surprised somebody thought of the idea of 'Hey - let's find a kid who disappeared years ago, who'd be a little older,' that's the perfect identity to steal.”
Lisk said missing children are prime candidates because they still have information that's out there and still available.
"My thought is that somebody who is going for a birth certificate is looking to go all the way with getting a driver's license and/or a passport and everything else...I mean, I can't think of why you would want to get the birth certificate unless you really want to go all the way,” Lisk said. “Otherwise, I just want to steal your social security number to get a credit card.”
Ed Barham, with Arkansas Department of Health, said he's not sure how common identity theft involving birth certificates really is.
"Obviously if it's possible at all, some people do get away with it,” he said. “But we wouldn't know that.”
Barham said as far as he knows cases like these are rare.
"It is only possible to get a birth certificate or a death certificate if you're a member of the family or can prove your connection,” he said. “So that sort of proof is required. And we can't say that no one could falsify their records in order to prove that...but it's pretty difficult.”
In Nick's case, the state health department called state police to tell them about the birth certificate request. Then an investigation began which led to Smith's arrest.
Nick was six-years-old when she was abducted from an Alma baseball park on June 9, 1995. The case remains unsolved.