Saturday, July 16, 2005
Blacksburg may protect privacy of trash
Blacksburg police say they don't plan to stake out trash cans but would investigate complaints.
BLACKSBURG -- For the second time in less than a decade, a Dumpster-diving TV reporter prompted a local government to try to protect residents' trash.
Blacksburg Town Council is considering an ordinance that would make scavenging in trash cans or Dumpsters a class 3 misdemeanor after WSLS Channel 10 reporter Denise Eck aired two stories in May about banks that threw out customers' financial information without shredding it.
Eck collected trash from the Dumpsters of Blacksburg businesses and interviewed people whose information she found. One woman's bank loan application, including social security and account numbers, turned up in a National Bank of Blacksburg Dumpster, according to the report.
Blacksburg Councilwoman Joyce Lewis said Friday that she was upset with the reporter for pilfering the trash and with NBB, where Lewis banks, for not protecting the financial information.
But she said it was a wake-up call to council members, some of whom heard from residents asking for legislation.
Officials at NBB and BB&T, the two banks profiled in the television report, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Eck did go back to the banks a second time to see if she could find more information, she said.
On the second pass, BB&T had shredded much of its trash,. And she found no customer information at NBB.
The story itself was plucked from the recycle bin. In 1998, another Channel 10 reporter collected garbage in Roanoke County and aired a story about finding customers' personal information in business' rubbish.
County supervisors then passed an anti-scavenging ordinance similar to one that has been in place in Roanoke city since 1977.
Eck was happy Friday to hear that her story prompted some action from the Blacksburg council.
"I think it's outstanding. I think it's very responsible given this age of identity theft," she said.
Lewis said she will likely vote to pass the proposed Blacksburg anti-scavenging ordinance after it goes through public hearings that are to be scheduled for sometime next month.
Reached Friday, a majority of council members expressed support for the ordinance because they said it was something they could do to protect constituents from identity theft.
Thievery of financial information used to make fraudulent purchases is "the fastest-growing crime in the country right now," said Blacksburg Police Chief Bill Brown.
Blacksburg resident Maya English said Thursday that she thinks it's good of council to try to protect residents' privacy.
"But how would you monitor that?" she asked.
Brown said his officers would "not be staking out trash cans."
They would investigate complaints, however. Anyone found violating the ordinance, should it pass, would have to pay up to $500 in fines.
The ordinance would allow the time-honored Blacksburg tradition of salvaging old furniture, appliances and other odds and ends put to the curb.
That kind of "exchange" keeps bulky items out of the Montgomery County landfill and relieves some of the work load on town crews, Interim Town Manager Marc Verniel said.
Besides, said Councilman Tom Sherman, "there's a difference between someone taking an old chair I sit out and somebody tearing open my garbage bag to get information."
But there is some question whether local ordinances would stand up to a legal challenge.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that people cannot reasonably assume their trash is private.
State supreme courts, however, have contradicted that. Justices in Indiana and New Hampshire have ruled that their state constitutions make trash a private matter.