Traverse City Record-Eagle

Newsmakers 2011

December 16, 2011

Newsmakers: Discovery left men curious

TRAVERSE CITY — A storage unit finding and subsequent foray into the world of federal bureaucracy left Lawrence Betz curious and Bill Petersen bitter.

The two men stumbled across what some experts termed an identity thief's dream come true when they bought the contents of an Elmwood Township storage unit.

The unit belonged to a then-local car salesman named Joe Wittbrodt, whose two ex-wives now happen to be married to Betz and Petersen. The men bought the unit at auction last year to retrieve property they said belonged to their stepdaughters, but discovered much more.

The locker held a cache of personal financial information — Social Security numbers, full credit reports, driver's licenses, and bank and credit card information mined from 340 people. Wittbrodt accumulated that information while he worked at Williams Chevrolet in Traverse City.

The locker also contained 290 applications for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief, and a FEMA laptop computer from a stint Wittbrodt had as a FEMA contract employee. The documents included Social Security numbers, full credit reports, drivers licenses, and bank and credit card information.

Betz and Petersen reported their findings to various local and federal agencies, none of whom, they said, seemed to care.

"If I was a person who had my identity in those boxes I would feel something more should be done," Petersen said.

Betz, a suburban Chicago police officer, said Wittbrodt dropped out of sight in late August, stopped making child support payments, and hasn't tried to contact his daughters.

"It's not normal behavior for Joe," Betz said. "I'm real curious, because none of this makes sense."

Wittbrodt appeared before a Grand Traverse County family court referee in August in an effort to lower his child support payments. He testified he lost his job at Williams this year because of "negative publicity" tied to a Record-Eagle story on the storage unit.

Wittbrodt testified it was "common practice" for a car salesman to keep files outside the office and was not contrary to company policy, according to court documents.

But Williams officials fired Wittbrodt for unauthorized and illegal removal of company records, said George Chichester, Williams Chevrolet general manager.

"It is not common practice for any employee to remove confidential records," Chichester said.

Wittbrodt likely took the records sometime prior to 2009, before the Federal Trade Commission published rules on how companies are to secure customer information, he said.

"But at that time we were still very conscious and it was not common practice for any of that to leave the dealership," Chichester said. "Our records are secured and in strict compliance with FTC regulations. We use independent third parties to inspect our compliance."

The FTC did not contact Williams about the breach, Chichester said.

The agency doesn't have the resources to investigate every complaint, said FTC spokesman Frank Dorman. The FTC also doesn't comment on practices by an individual business.

FEMA sent Betz a thank-you note for safeguarding personal data on the relief applications. The agency this week released an unsigned statement that said it closed its investigation. FEMA's probe concluded that no dissemination of the information occurred and that there was no evidence of criminal intent on Wittbrodt's part.

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