Originally created 02/22/99

Businesses use police reports



It was a routine incident report.

Richmond County Deputy Susie Gilmore drove to the Butler Creek community to investigate a burglary, her pen and paper in hand. She needed all the particulars from victim Janet Noble: name, age, telephone number, details of what happened and a list of the stolen items.

Ms. Noble, obviously upset after someone kicked in her door and hauled off several televisions and furniture pieces while she was gone, was happy to oblige the investigator's questions. The deputy eventually filed the report and Ms. Noble cleaned up.

The next week, Ms. Noble got calls from three salesmen, each offering to show her the benefits of a home security system to stop the next burglar.

It is a common scene across Georgia: salesmen using police reports to get a good lead.

But across the border in South Carolina, businessmen have it harder. Their state legislators have outlawed the use of similar public information to solicit business.

The practice is a dilemma many home security salesmen debate and one that has led to legislative battles in both states.

Is using police reports for commercial gain preying on the misfortune of others? Or is it offering a service at a critical time in a victim's life?

"We try to use it to give us a general idea of the crime trends, like Graniteville or another area," Gary Yates, owner of ADT Security, said as his workers installed a system in a Graniteville home Wednesday."Areas like this are ideal situations -- fairly new, no alarm system, around a lot of woods."

ADT salesman Alexander Martinez heard on the radio that the area had been a haven for thieves. So he went knocking on doors and found Paul Wyatt Jr. of Holly Meadows Road. Mr. Wyatt was looking for a system anyway after his brother had experienced two burglaries in a nearby home.

Securitylink from Ameritech contracts with telemarketers and uses police reports to find potential buyers. Michael Schortinghuis, senior commercial representative, argues that other industries also use public information for profit.

Practice used by others

Life insurance agents use birth records and chiropractors use accident reports.

"A lot of it can be pulled from the paper. If you tell me something's happening on the 400 block of Lewis Avenue, I'd go flier the place."

Burglary victims deserve a call, he said.

"I see it as a service. We want to offer our services to these folks. If these people don't see a need for it, then they can easily say, `Thank you very much, but no."'

Dee Smart of Warrenville doesn't see it that way.

She discovered a neighbor's trailer had been broken into Feb. 11 and reported it to the Aiken County Sheriff's Office. Because her neighbor didn't have a phone, she provided deputies with her own number and the neighbor's name.

In two days, Ms. Smart got three calls from a home security company asking for the neighbor.

She could guess where the sales rep got her unlisted number.

Calls upset some

"I just think it's a scam. They are taking advantage of someone else's misfortune," she said. "I'd rather not be bothered by it."

Even though it is illegal in South Carolina, violators seldom are prosecuted, officials said. Aiken County Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Michael Frank said he has heard of no complaints being filed with his agency from victims getting calls.

Several years ago, the Georgia legislature tried to enact legislation outlawing commercial solicitation, but the state Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional, according to Daryl Robinson, deputy counsel for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker. It was for good reason, he said.

"In Georgia, if it's a public record, it's a public record. And we're not in the business of prior restraint to say how you use it," Mr. Robinson said.

Plus, he argues that the news media uses the same information to write crime stories and sell papers, he said.

"How can you distinguish between two classes of citizens and determine who gets police reports," Mr. Robinson said. "That's the dilemma in a nutshell. What do you do?"

Except for commercial solicitation, South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act does not limit how a requester may use public information. That means salesmen can read the papers or hit a well-known crime-ridden neighborhood rather than target a specific victim.

Business is competitive

With consumers dishing out $5 billion during the past five years on home security, competition is fierce in the industry. That makes getting a buyer all the more tricky.

Before Lt. Judy McMinn arrives at work at the Richmond County sheriff's records division each morning at 7:30, two or three salesmen already have come and gone, the names and numbers of victims jotted down in their notepads.

Sometimes, the records division gets complaints.

"Some of the victims call and say, `Why is so-and-so calling me?' I assume they're a little upset because they've had a little bit of grief and here they go again," Lt. McMinn said.

"I have to kind of disagree with it. I mean, advertise on TV. Do a commercial or infommercial. My personal opinion is that these people are being victimized enough."

Mr. Yates said he disagrees with companies who find a burglary victim and then hit them fast with a sales pitch. He said they eventually target the victim's other family members.

"Like any business, there are people who do it with integrity and those who don't. Some, their only focus is bringing in revenue," he said.

Preston Sizemore Sr. said his Augusta-based security business, Sizemore Security International, has been in the area so long, people call them. And if he needs business, he just advertises.

"I think if someone has just broken into your house and before you could clean up, someone is knocking on your door ... I might not be too receptive," he said. "Maybe if they would just wait a week or two."

Greg Rickabaugh covers police for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.