Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How to Use Public Records

How to Use Public Records

Disclaimer: Nothing contained in this document should be construed as legal advice. The information contained below is for educational purposes only and relates strictly to the legal use of public records.

There are two under-utilized areas of public law that are useful in dealing with bad neighbors and other persons in your town that are intent on destroying your community’s way of life. They are the use the public records and Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests. There are many instances of people fraudulently receiving multiple types of welfare benefits and they should be cut off, effectively reducing their income level. Once background information is developed on a specific person or family, it can be disseminated to various public welfare agencies by writing anonymous letters.[1] Below are some of the basic records that can be obtained. The more you learn about how government works in your municipality, county and state, the more information you will be able to obtain. Most important, never be afraid to ask questions or try to obtain information.

Local Records:
Police Department: Send your local police department a FOIA request that asks for all police calls made to the residence where the person you are investigating resides (for purposes of this summary, the term “target” will be used). Ask for a copy of all written reports and a list electronic incident report dates and subject matter where there was no written report was filed. This can be done for every local police department where the target has lived. It will give you a general idea of what type of criminal behavior the target is involved with and how responsive the local police are to calls against the target. Most municipalities keep records up to eight years. (See also County Court System Cases below.)

Building Code Enforcement: Contact your local building department and file complaints against obvious code violations, such as junk cars, garbage on the ground, broken windows, anything that could reduce the overall value of other homes in the neighborhood. Your local municipality will force the property owners to bring it into code. Any unpaid fines can be collected by your municipality if they choose to file a lawsuit.

County Records: Most county records are online or can be accessed by visiting your county government building. All documents are available for copying at a nominal cost. The most advantageous records to look for are:

County Court System Cases: A wealth of information can be obtained at your county courthouse. All civil, law, family, probate, traffic and criminal matters can be found in these records and are public access records with the exception of juvenile criminal and adoption records. Criminal records will contain the crimes committed, convictions and sentences served and many states and counties have records that go back 20 years or more. Have all old records pulled from the archives and copied. Court cases that involve matters such as the non-payment of credit cards or utilities will have a citation to discover assets in the file. This will give past employment, possible bank account information, and usually will contain the target’s social security number.[2] Where a plaintiff has received a judgment against the target but never collected payment, contact the plaintiff and provide the address and telephone number of the target with asset information. If there are current cases against the target where they have never been served (no summons or complaint were delivered by the sheriff or a process server), send the attorney of record in the case the target’s address, current employer (if know) or lifestyle habits, such as they all sit on the porch for two or three hours every morning/evening between 8 and 11. This will make service of the lawsuit easier.

Targets will often, if not always, file as an “indigent or a “pauper” in lawsuits. This means they can sue anyone and not have to pay filing fees or service-of-process fees like everyone else by “pleading poverty.” An indigent application will be in the court record and will indicate public aid being received.

Read each lawsuit to look for clues relating to the target’s activities. In one case, a target was listed as a student. Because there was no gainful employment by the target, it was easy to determine the target was receiving federally-funded grants, stipends and tuition payments. A letter to the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education with deeds to personal and income property owned, registration information on vehicles owned (see State Records-Vehicle Registration), and other income-related statements made by the target in court records cut off financial aid the target was receiving.

Recorder of Deeds of Registrar’s Office: This department records property transfers which show the name of the property owner, the price paid for the property, the date of purchase, mortgages, etc. Many welfare recipients own income property and receive rental payment in cash, thereby avoiding paying income taxes and collecting welfare benefits at the same time. Get copies of deeds and mortgages of all property owned by the target. These can be submitted to the various welfare agencies to have benefits cut off.

Assessor’s or Property Tax Office: This office will tell you what the assessed or taxable value of a property is and what exemptions are on the property to
reduce real estate taxes, such as homeowner’s or mortgage exemptions (it varies by state). If the property value is set at zero, no taxes are being paid. Many targets who own multiple properties keep homeowner’s exemptions on all them, even though they are used for income property. Write a letter to the assessor with appropriate documentation (the target lives at 123 Main, but has income property at 456 Elm and 789 Maple) and have them remove the homeowner’s exemption. This will increase the real estate taxes by at least 25% in most cases.

If a home has zero taxable value, there is generally a religious or charitable exemption on it. Do a FOIA request and ask for the documentation for the property’s religious or charitable exemption. If they don’t have the paperwork, ask how to have real estate property declared exempt, get the blank paperwork, review for insight purposes, and do a FOIA request on the county department that handles the exemption. Also, ask the assessor to have the property reassessed if taxes are lower and not in line with what neighboring houses are paying.

Treasurer’s Office: This office will tell you exactly dollar amount anyone in your county pays for real estate taxes. Property is generally searchable by name, address or PIN (property index number).

Vital Statistics:
Marriage records are public records and accessible by anyone. Many welfare recipients claim they are single to receive benefits when they are actually married and the spouse is gainfully employed. Purchase a copy of the marriage license and send it to public agencies where the target is suspected of receiving fraudulent welfare benefits. If you are unsure of a maiden name, www.veromi.net often provides the maiden name of female targets. Birth and death records are strictly controlled and have limits placed on their accessibility.

State Records:
Corporation Department or Secretary of State: Find out if the target has a not-for-profit corporation. Incorporating a not-for-profit corporation is how many people avoid payment of taxes. While this can be difficult to find without knowing the name of the corporation, the Recorder of Deeds or Registrar’s Office in the county where the target resides will sometimes have the name of the corporation on file cross-referenced with the name(s) of the incorporator, officer(s) and/or director(s).
State’s Attorney: Send a FOIA request to see if the target has filed any consumer fraud complaints against any companies and ask for copies through a FOIA request.

Additionally, the State’s Attorney Office will require that not-for-profit corporations be registered with that office. A FOIA request will get you copies of any filings. Some states have this information available online in a format that can be downloaded.

State Welfare Agencies: Food stamps (in the form of debit cards) can be cut off by writing to your State’s Office of the Inspector General of Public Aid (name of agency varies from state to state). Contact information can be found in your telephone book. Some states have “one-stop shopping” when it comes to exposing welfare fraud with confidential online websites which allow you to give the necessary data quickly, but following up with a paper copy is always a good idea.

Vehicle Registration/Department of Motor Vehicles: Many states have vehicle registration services online to determine if a car’s registration is current by running the license plate number. A few states are now providing the automobile’s owner and last known address for a small fee or an annual registration fee. These services vary from state to state. If a vehicle is not properly licensed, most municipalities will ticket and then tow it away, even if it is located on private property.

State Police:
Many states allow you to make a blanket request for felonies committed by a criminal in that state. Check the state police website for your locale for further information. Generally, you will need the target’s name, date of birth, and driver’s license number. The date of birth and driver’s license number can be obtained through your county courthouse records from traffic citation or criminal records.

Federal: Few federal records are available due to current privacy laws. However, those that are available are very informative.

U.S. District Court: All cases, including bankruptcies, filed in the federal court system are public record and can be accessed online through the PACER system. PACER accounts are easy to set up, the cost is nominal, and documents can be downloaded, printed and saved for future reference. A credit card or debit card is required for setup.

Internal Revenue Service: Most not-for-profit corporations filed a Form 1023, Application for Recognition of Exemption, with the IRS. This is public record and copies are available through a FOIA request.

If the target is receiving welfare benefits to which he or she is not entitled, those benefits convert to income according to IRS rules. File Form 3949A with the IRS which will start the audit process.

U.S. Department of Education: While no information can be obtained, this Department is quite willing to accept information. If you find an instance where someone is receiving college grants, stipends and tuition payments that they are not entitled to, write a letter with the appropriate documentation to:

Inspector General’s Hotline
Office of Inspector
General
U.S. Department of
Education
400 Maryland Avenue,
SW
Washington, DC
20202-1500

1-800-MIS-USED

http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/hotline.html - a downloadable complaint form should be
used

Social Security Administration: If you have evidence the target is receiving disability benefits (see County Court System Cases above), but is working and receiving more than $900 per month including cash received “under the table,” write to the Social Security Administration at:

Social Security Fraud Hotline
P. O. box 17768
Baltimore, Maryland 21235

Phone:
1-800-269-0271
Fax:
410-597-0118

The reason why so many targets organize churches relates directly to the target’s receipt of social security disability income. Churches are not required to file tax returns or report how much income they pay their “ministers.” Essentially, a target could be receiving $2,000 per month in disability benefits from Social Security and receiving $2,000 per month as minister’s pay.
Miscellaneous:

Talk to Neighbors: Repeatedly, I have seen targets move into a neighborhood and the first thing they do is cause dissension among the current residents. They will often harass someone who is elderly, a single woman, or a single working mother, because those people are perceived as the “weakest link” and have no one to stand up for them, effectively forcing good people out and allowing bad people to move in. Find out what is being said by the target from others in the neighborhood and then write down notes once you are inside your home. You never know when the smallest tidbit of information will help you in the future.

Catholic Charities: Many targets apply for winter heating assistance through a local Catholic Charities office. Write an anonymous letter to your local office with the target’s name and appropriate documentation. It will put them on a watch list.

Surveillance Equipment: Small surveillance cameras can be purchased at a nominal cost that will record directly to your VCR of DVD player. X10.com has many types of cameras, as do other online providers. Surveilling your property for a few days will give you a good idea of what transpires when you are at work.

Online Search Databases: Zabasearch.com and Veromi.net are very useful search tools. Zabasearch will provide current and past addresses while Veromi will provide the names of family members and maiden names of the female targets. Pay-for-use databases, such as Accurint.net, are available only to
certain qualified subscribers. If possible, find a company or public agency who subscribes to this database.

Leafletting:
If the target has an extensive criminal background, make copies of those cases and distribute them to neighbors in the middle of the night. Let them know who is living in your neighborhood. This is the dissemination of publicly-available information.

Local Newspapers:
If your local newspaper is online, it will generally have a search feature. Search to see if your target comes up.

Googling:
You would be surprised at the amount of information that is available with a simple Google search. Google terms such as “reporting [name of state] welfare fraud” or google your target’s name to find information online.

As with most things, there must be a word of caution when researching your target if the target is a minority. In some circumstances, your actions can be perceived as racially motivated (i.e., your target will play the race card), particularly when certain activities apply to the housing sector. An example could be your target is selling
drugs out of his or her home, you call the police and the target is arrested. If the target determines you are responsible, he or she can file a housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, claiming racial discrimination – you are trying to force them out of their home by making false accusations when, in reality, you are stopping illegal activity. There is sometimes a very fine line between exposing fraudulent behavior and perceived racial discrimination and no one wants to answer to federal complaint, whether justified or not. The best way to avoid this type of situation is by anonymity. Also, always research the law before acting, whether it is federal, state or local and always use good judgment. Everything you need to know is online and readily available on line or at your local library.

Time and experience has shown that when you put your target under the magnifying glass, that person starts spiraling out of control. They know they are being watched intensely and do not like it, forcing them to stop their illegal activities or take those activities elsewhere. Every target brings a unique experience and set of circumstances and should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. You will only find what you need to know by learning the law and honing your investigative skills. Also, never assume – agencies do not cross-share information and the target knows and depends on this. Local, county, state and federal agencies depend on decent, honest citizens to report fraudulent activity.

So when you see people in the grocery store that are “dressed to the nines,” pay for groceries with food stamps and then drive away in a new Cadillac Escalade, there is something you can do about it, if you are willing to take the time and make the effort to expose someone’s fraudulent activities.

[1] It is to your advantage to write letters anonymously instead of providing welfare agencies with your personal contact information. What is available to you as public information through FOIA requests is also available to the target you are trying to expose. Anonymous letters keep you and your family safe from any retaliatory actions.

[2] It is unlawful to use someone else’s social security number for the purposes of “pretexting” (identifying yourself as that person to obtain financial information), committing identity theft or other deceptive practices. However, providing that number to various welfare agencies will make it easier to have fraudulently-obtained benefits cut off.

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