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The Watchdog

After years of attacking local politicians, B.J. Ostergren hits the jackpot.

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Ostergren has been plugging groundhogs, politicians, county clerks, reporters — you name it — for the better part of 12 years. She may not bring her gun to the local courthouse or the state Capitol, but whosoever gets locked in her sights knows well the plight of the groundhogs.

A self-described "tick you can't pull off," Ostergren latches and doesn't let go. Take her latest crusade to block Virginia localities from "spoon-feeding criminals" by posting land records, deeds and marriage licensees on the Web. With a click of a mouse Ostergren can produce the Social Security numbers and addresses of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Congressman Tom DeLay, and thousands of others.

As state and federal lawmakers scramble to contain a wave of identity theft across the country, much of the personal information that is bought and sold by data brokers comes from billions of public records made available online by local governments.

Ostergren sounds the warning: For weeks at a time, she's spent 12 hours a day on the telephone calling residents across the state, telling them that identity-theft criminals across the globe can use the records posted online to get access to the Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and other sensitive personal information of their husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children and grandchildren. She urges them to contact their clerk's office and request that the practice be stopped.

It's a lethal pitch. So much so that Ostergren, 56, has been quoted in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Smart Money magazine, CBS Evening News and CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight.

The attention clearly energizes Ostergren. She relishes the fight. In a span of three weeks in the fall of 2002, she stopped Hanover County from launching a new digital computer system that would make paper public records available on the Web. During the next year, she managed to stop similar plans in King George, King William, Scott, Loudoun and Arlington counties. "If it wasn't for me," she says, "the whole state would be online."

Few argue the point.

Not even Frank D. Hargrove Jr., the Circuit Court clerk in Hanover County, Ostergren's first target. He remembers when the furor started in August 2002, and how he spent hours fielding calls from angry citizens, prompted by Ostergren.

"I tried to call as many of them as I could to discuss it. That's all I did for a couple of weeks," he recalls. "I was a little bit caught off-guard that this one just sort of blew up in our face."

The calls were enough to stop the county from making the records available on the Internet. "Those security concerns immediately became concerns that we couldn't address, so we didn't go forward," Hargrove says.

Ostergren's success made her a first-class pain in the rump for politicians and official bureaucrats — and just not in Hanover. Her sights were set on the General Assembly, where she lobbied to stall the state's mandate to make public records available online — pushing the date back to July 1, 2006.

It also meant Ostergren wasn't returning to her popular stomping ground, the Hanover County Board of Supervisors. From 1993 to 2000, she had been no ordinary gadfly. She rarely, if ever, missed a meeting. Her acid tongue spared no one.

She was famous for greeting people at the door with fliers depicting all manner of inscrutable activity by members of the board: late tax bills, liens, judgments — even jail time. She took the supervisors to court twice and posted her daily rants on her Web site, the Hanover Web (no longer online).

One of her most frequent victims was longtime supervisor Aubrey M. "Bucky" Stanley. Armed with fliers detailing his tax problems, which led to seven days behind bars in 1991, she greeted citizens at the door. A T-shirt at her house, given to her by another county resident, is emblazoned with a newspaper clipping on the front and back: "Tax Charges Filed Against Stanley," the headline screams.

She is known for having cameras affixed to the outside of her house, so she can monitor the comings and goings of her neighbors. Legend has it that Ostergren would sometimes roam the streets in the middle of the night, seeking to uncover zoning violations.

No regrets, Ostergren says. She's even glad that she lost her 1995 bid to replace former Ashland District Supervisor Richard S. Gillis Jr. She hasn't attended a board meeting since her husband, John, became seriously ill in March 2000.

For two years, she cared for her bedridden husband and dealt with the loss of her father. She breaks into tears recounting the experience. "It was no more county, county, county," she says. "It was family, family, family."

Her absence from the board meetings was chilling, Stanley recalls.

"She became like one of the board," says Stanley, who bears no hard feelings toward Ostergren. "She used to give me the devil. … But I always did have respect for her."

He's happy she's found another punching bag. He's quick to express support Ostergren, who has branded herself as The Virginia Watchdog, (www.opcva.com/watchdog). "What she's doing now, I'm not sure she's not right," he adds.

Ostergren remembers the call that started everything. At precisely 8:05 p.m. on Aug. 27, 2002, a title examiner in Richmond phoned her, dropping a bomb. She says the man, who knew her reputation, told her that he "prayed that I would find you and your husband's Social Security number online."

Putting land records online was bad for business. He was hoping Ostergren would bite. He just couldn't find any mortgage papers, marriage certificates, nothing belonging to Ostergren and her husband. He did, however, find her signature.

Her eyes widen again and her voice rises recounting the phone call — a eureka moment. "All of a sudden, I said I don't want my signature on the Internet!" she recalls telling the examiner, rather loudly.

After a two-year hiatus, she'd found her new calling. S



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