A private company that sells vehicle accident reports for $11 each to Georgians is making roughly $1 million a year off information that can by law be made available to drivers for less than a dollar.
Each day, police officers statewide direct hundreds of drivers involved in wrecks to a website, Buycrash.com, that belongs to a Kentucky company, Apriss Inc. The officers don’t tell motorists they can get the accident reports, needed for insurance and legal purposes, from local police agencies at little or no cost. Nor is the public likely aware that the addresses and driver’s license numbers included in the reports — personal information that could be valuable to identity thieves — is left largely unprotected.
Appriss, and companies like it, also sell details from Georgia crash reports to information brokers such as Carfax.
The Georgia Department of Transportation says its business deal with Appriss — selling the company accident reports gathered by the Georgia State Patrol and local law enforcement agencies — saves GDOT time and hundreds of thousands of dollars each yearin personnel costs to file and copy accident reports. The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police said in documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there is another significant benefit to the Appriss deal — local law enforcement, in return for directing drivers to Buycrash.com, can earn between $2 and $5 for each accident report the company sells. Nearly a quarter of the state’s local law enforcement agencies, including university police departments, are taking part, including more than 70 in metro Atlanta.
When the same information is requested directly from a law enforcement agency, state law limits what consumers are charged to the cost of copying a report, which is usually less than $1.
The documents are technically not public records, and the law limits their access to the drivers and others involved in the accidents, their attorneys and insurance companies, and the media.
“So the DOT is making money selling our private information,” attorney Gerry Weber said. “And somebody else is making even more money selling our personal information.”
While Georgia’s police chiefs back the agreements, a number of Georgia sheriffs object to a private company profiting by selling reports generated by their deputies at taxpayers’ expense. An additional worry is the risk of identity theft. The FBI has warned that websites like Buycrash.com “can be potentially used by fraudsters for illegitimate purposes.”
David Kaelin, Appriss’ president, told the AJC he is unaware of identity thieves using Buycrash.com to get information.
“We are very diligent about how we disseminate that information and recording tremendous amounts of information about who is accessing those records,” he said.
Agencies get their cut
Some Georgians feel duped after paying Buycrash.com for an accident report when the same information is available to them for almost nothing.
Alison Nazarowski bought an accident report from Buycrash.com after a cab struck her car at Moreland Avenue and Memorial Drive.
An Atlanta police officer gave her a card that referred her to Buycrash.com, she said, and he told her if she wanted an accident report to visit the site. He didn’t tell her she could get the same information from the Atlanta Police Department, Nazarowski said.
“The implication was this was a website that was managed and operated or affiliated with the Police Department,” said Nazarowski, a lawyer.
She added, “It never, ever, ever crossed my mind (that) a privately run company and the Police Department were making money off it.”
Appriss went into business with the state 4 1/2 years ago when it entered into a five-year contract with the DOT. All states must keep accident report data in order to receive federal money for highway safety program; for Georgia, that’s $60 million to $70 million a year. Previously, taxpayers were spending about $900,000 a year managing and distributing as many as 380,000 reports a year, said the DOT.
“We were using state general funds for that,” DOT Commissioner Keith Golden said. “Our main goal was to offset the cost. We got rid of about 20 people who handled those reports. This is a true public-private partnership.”
Under the agreement, Appriss will pay the state $650,000 for the reports provided by the Georgia State Patrol and all the local law enforcement agencies in Georgia. That’s about 14 percent of the more than $4.7 million Appriss has taken in by selling almost 429,000 Georgia accident reports.
Local agencies also get paid — $2, $3 or $5 per report, depending on the form the documents are in when they get to Appriss — if they sign revenue-sharing agreements with the company. So far, Appriss has sent $1.5 million to 193 of Georgia’s more than 800 local law enforcement agencies, Kaelin said. The Atlanta Police Department, for example, has received almost $167,000 for the 35,570 APD accident reports Appriss has sold since July 1, 2012.
“If you are not taking advantage of the reimbursement agreement with (Appriss), you are missing out on free money that could be flowing to your department,” Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote members recently.
Rotondo’s group is now administering a state program for the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety that can direct more money — $139,900 in federal grants — to local law enforcement agencies for the purchase of computers to be installed in patrol cars. One of the Highway Safety Office’s requirements to receive the funding is that the agency sign a revenue-sharing agreement with Appriss.
“It’s for traffic records, and the whole idea is to get that electronically,” said Harris Blackwood, director of the Highway Safety Office. “The reason we have directed people to them (Appriss) is because of the DOT contract.”
But promises of efficiency and profit aren’t enough to convince some Georgia law enforcement officers that doing business with Appriss is a good deal for the public.
Atkinson County Sheriff David Moore is one of them, who said he doesn’t feel comfortable with his officers essentially working for a private company.
“We had to agree to inform people in the wrecks that they could get a copy (of the accident report) from Appriss,” the sheriff said.
Moore provides the reports free of charge, he said.
Convenience at a cost
A key component of Appriss’ business model is that officers are bound by the revenue-sharing agreements to give drivers in car accidents business cards that direct them to Buycrash.com
Jourdayn Hunsaker got one of those cards bearing an officer’s name and the number of her accident report following a wreck in July on Northside Drive.
The Georgia Tech student said she was not told she could go to the APD to review the report.
“It bothers me that I had to pay that much just to read that report,” Hunsaker said.
More than half of what Hunsaker paid, $6, was a “convenience fee” that Appriss charges.
Norm Cressman, a former manager of the DOT’s crash reporting unit, said the law the agency follows in distributing reports caps the cost at $5.
But Appriss’ lawyer, former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, wrote in a letter that there is nothing in the law that prohibits adding such a fee.
Kaelin, the company’s president, defended the fee.
“Not too many would argue the benefits to providing online convenient access to crash reports,” he said. “Saves time, gas, fewer cars on the road, fewer accidents, etc.”
As much as the cost bothered Hunsaker, the worst part was that the reports make her personal information easily accessible.
“It doesn’t sit well with me at all,” she said. “People can find out where I live.”
‘Easy access’ to personal info
Sites such as Buycrash.com, the FBI wrote in a 2012 information report, provide “the public easy access to a large number of police reports containing personal information,” even though Georgia’s law restricts access to them to certain groups. All it takes to get a PDF of a report is a click on a line claiming to be one of the involved drivers, his or her insurance carrier or attorney, or a member of the media.
“They do not require the user to prove this via documentation or personal identifiers,” wrote the FBI, which declined to comment beyond what was contained in the report.
Some of that information goes to other businesses such as Carfax when Appriss sells it to them under the exception that allows “researchers” to get redacted reports, said Kaelin, Appriss’ president. Only information about the car — not the driver — is sold, he said.
The DOT and Appriss say it’s easy to verify that reports are only going to those entitled to receive them because the website captures the Internet address, or the IP address, of the computer used to make the purchase and it also has the number of the credit card that is used.
Mark Elliott Budnitz, an authority on identity theft, disagrees, saying it appears to be a system that can be easily circumvented.
“With just a little bit of information … they can get lots more information about you and steal your identity,” said Budnitz, a professor emeritus with the Georgia State University Law School. “… Anyone can just click and say ‘I’m a member of the press’ or ‘I was in an accident.’ ”
The credit card number and IP address do not guarantee safety, Budnitz said. The credit card could be stolen, he said. So could the computer.
Bowers said while “no security system is foolproof,” the company has done all it can to protect the data and to protect itself and law enforcement agencies from liability should criminals use Buycrash.com to get information.
Within seconds, an accident report is delivered to whoever pays the $11. Nothing on the report is blacked out. Addresses, driver’s license numbers, dates of birth, cellphone numbers are readily available.
The DOT says the accident reports are technically not public records, so Appriss is not bound to redact the reports.
That’s a big concern to Nazarowski.
“I try to be fairly careful about maintaining my personal information as private,” she said.
Domestic relations cases account for much of her law practice’s workload, and often the rage of an angry spouse is directed at her.
Michael Caldwell, the general counsel for the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said identity theft is “not an issue that’s come up.”
“Maybe,” he said, “it’s one that needs to.”
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills thinks there is significant exposure to drivers to become ID theft victims.
“It’s outrageous that your data and personal information is subject to anybody on Earth stealing,” said Sills, the immediate past president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “It victimizes (accident victims) all over again courtesy of the state of Georgia.”
How we got the story
Acting on a tip, The Atlanta Journal Constitution requested a number of records from the Georgia Department of Transportation, which is the state agency responsible for maintaining all crash reports in the state. We reviewed memorandums of understanding, contracts and agreements with various law enforcement agencies. We also interviewed law enforcement officials, accident victims, privacy experts and representatives of Appriss.