Monday, May 16, 2011
Help Me Howard: Water Bill
Want to know how much water your neighbor is using? Want to know if they are paying their bill? You don't have to be nosy and ask. Just type in their name on Google, and the information is there. Is it legal for a government to give your information out? It's why one woman called Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.
WSVN -- Many people believe in God, but some believe much more than others.
Lynda Eyrich, Upset with Government: "He's a husband to me, he's a father to me, he's everything to me. By trusting in him, I can get through life better."
Lynda Eyrich feels so strongly that she wants to devote her entire life to God by joining the sisterhood.
Lynda Eyrich: "Right now, I'm an affiliate with the Salvatorian Sisters, who are in Milwaukee. It's a society, a group, and I am studying now to become one of the sisters."
She has the time and patience to study, but the bureaucracy is testing her patience.
Lynda Eyrich: "I take my bills very, very seriously."
Her problem started recently when she was having fun and Googled her name. Lynda was shocked to find her water bill listed online.
Lynda Eyrich: "A utility bill popped up that was showing that I was behind $36, and I was only behind it, because I wound up in the hospital. When I came back out of the hospital, I tried to rectify it, and I thought it was rectified."
Not only was Lynda's water bill still online, but you could read every Broward County Water customer's bill by just Googling their name.
Some of you watching might not care. Lynda does.
Lynda Eyrich: "On the internet, you have my name, the account number and my home address."
Lynda called Broward County Water to complain about it and was shocked at what she was told.
Lynda Eyrich: "We are in the 21st century and that if anybody wants to know anything about me on the Internet, they can find it through the Internet, to get a grip. It's just a way of life."
So she went in person to the water department to ask nicely for it to be removed.
She says they told her they were sorry, that she wasn't the first to complain, but they didn't know how to get water bills off the Internet.
Lynda Eyrich: "You put it out there for the whole world, not just the United States but the whole world, to find out."
If you don't want to Google it to find your neighbor's water bill, you can just go to the Broward Water Department's webpage, type in any customer's name, and their address and the amount they owe pops up.
Lynda Eyrich: "I think it's not nice. I don't think it's legal."
Well Howard, you have heard Lynda's question: Is it legal for a county agency to let anyone access their customers' bills?
Howard Finkelstein, 7 News Legal Expert: "Because it's a government agency, it is public record, and they have to make it available, but that doesn't mean they have to make it so easily available, meaning if they give out your home address, your payment history, you can't do anything about it."
When we contacted Broward County Water, they told us they had shut down the site so you can't find customers through search engines like Google, but anyone can still go to the county's website, type in a customer's name and get their address and water bill.
A county official told us they hope to block that by eventually installing a program that will require a password to look at a water bill, but they don't know when that will happen.
And Howard says it's not just government agencies that can give away your information.
Howard Finkelstein: "While government agencies have to give out your information, private companies do not. However, many companies sell your information, things like your phone number, mailing address or payment history, to people who want to sell you their products."
Lynda will have to put up with her information being available to anyone for a while longer, but from her studies, she realizes life is going to be filled with hurdles and irritation like this public water bill.
Lynda Eyrich: "We do go through things that are trials. He didn't say it was going to be easy on this earth. I can get through anything in life."
Patrick Fraser: "Now a question about liability. Let's say a robber looks at your water bill, sees your home address and comes and wipes you out. Is the government agency that posted your address responsible? Howard says no, that the agency is just following the law by making the records public. And unless you have a job like a cop, a judge, a prosecutor, things like that, you can't keep your address out of the public records."
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