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We sift through the spin over a contested, labor-backed radio
For more than a week, a labor-backed radio ad reaching across California has claimed that signing ballot measure petitions puts people at risk for identity theft.
It’s gained attention locally, where conservatives are collecting signatures to qualify a high-profile pension reform ballot measure for next summer’s election. Local labor groups oppose the proposed measure and endorse the ad’s identity theft warning. The ballot measure’s local supporters say labor groups are airing the ad solely to derail the signature drive.
To help you sift through the spin, we’re breaking down the minute-long ad in sections and examining its various claims.
The ad begins:
Woman: I just got back from the supermarket and those pushy signature gatherers are back.
Man: Oh honey, please tell me you didn’t sign their petitions.
W: Well, yes, I did. Is there a problem?
M: You know you put yourself at risk to identify theft.
Maybe. Only your name, address and signature are required by election officials on the petitions. More common information used in identity theft, like Social Security numbers or bank account numbers, isn’t required.
Privacy advocates say providing your name and address doesn’t put you at greater risk of identity theft. It’s commonly found in phone books after all. But providing your signature — information required for some financial transactions — could potentially increase the risk. It’s possible a thief could copy and forge your signature in credit card or check fraud schemes.
Still, Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, called the scenario far-fetched. Your name, address and signature alone wouldn’t be enough for those schemes. A thief would also need access to credit cards, banking information or a Social Security number.
“It would have to be quite an elaborate fraud,” Givens said. “It’s very difficult for me to conjure up a scenario where the data elements necessary for identity theft are there.”
A more valid concern, Givens and other privacy advocates say, is fake campaign petitions that request personal information beyond the three basic pieces required by election officials. If a signature gatherer asks for your Social Security number, don’t provide it and report the incident to law enforcement.
The ad continues:
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Woman: Are you kidding me?
Man: California doesn’t license or bond signature gatherers. Many of them are from out of state and move from city to city to carry petitions.
True. California does not license signature gatherers, although there are some rules they must follow. It’s a misdemeanor, for example, to knowingly or willfully allow signatures to be used for anything aside from qualifying the proposed ballot measure. Signature gatherers can’t intentionally make false statements, deny someone from reading the proposed ballot measure or refuse to say whether they’re being paid.
M: Anyone can do it, even convicted felons and forgers.
The “anyone can do it” claim is false. State elections laws say only registered voters or those eligible to vote may collect signatures. People on parole for felony convictions aren’t eligible to vote so they can’t legally collect signatures, said Shannan Velayas, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, which oversees election laws.
However, it’s possible a convicted felon or forgers could legally collect signatures if they are no longer on parole and otherwise eligible to vote. California, like most states, doesn’t permanently ban convicted felons from voting. That leaves enough room for the second claim to be true.
Woman: You mean I may have just given my personal information to a criminal?
Man: That’s right.
This is a possibility. The Orange County Register, for example, surveyed 45 signature gatherers in 2006 and found nine with criminal histories including child molestation, prostitution, methamphetamine use and immigrant smuggling.
Woman: (gasp) They even have my signature.
Man: I even read that the names and addresses on petitions were sent to other countries, including India.
W: Who knows what they did with it?
True, though it’s been outlawed. This 2005 story by the San Francisco Chronicle explained how a business-backed group paid an Oregon company to verify signatures in India, where the work could be done cheaper. The story spurred a review by state lawmakers and later that year, they prohibited sending voter registration and ballot measure signatures outside of the country, where identity theft protections may be less strict.
Man: The Legislature called it an “identity theft starter kit.” Now we really need to watch our bank statements and credit information.
This is a stretch. A 2005 legislative report cited by Californians Against Identity Theft, which paid for the radio ad, didn’t refer to the information collected by signature gatherers as an “identity theft starter kit.” The phrase referred to voter registration information, which can contain much more personal details like your name, address, birth date, gender, phone number and email.
The “starter kit” phrase originally came from Givens, the privacy advocate in San Diego, while she was a member of a state Task Force on Voter Privacy in 2004. Givens confirmed that the phrase referred to voter registries and not the basic information collected by signature gatherers.
Voter registries are managed by election officials and only provided to candidates for office, journalists, scholars and some others. They’re not a public record that anyone can access.
Woman: That’s it. I’m not signing any more of those petitions. I guess the lesson here is not to give our name and address to anyone we don’t know.
Man: Paid for by Californians Against Identity Theft
Californians Against Identity Theft is not associated with any established consumer protection group, according to the Sacramento Bee. It’s primarily sponsored by statewide labor groups, including the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and the California State Pipe Trades Council.
The group initially refused to identify its funders, sparking complaints from conservatives, but then filed financial disclosure information with state election officials as a political organization.
In the end, we decided not to evaluate the radio ad in our traditional Fact Check format because it contains statements that would merit ratings from True to False and somewhere between. However, the factual inaccuracies, stretched truths and overall lack of context should at least give you reason to pause when this minute-long ad comes on the radio next time. Don’t take it simply at face value.
But let’s open the discussion. Given that various claims in the ad, how would you rate its overall accuracy and why? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or shoot me an email.
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