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August 13, 2010

The theme of this edition of McKenna’s Must Read is protection, as in:

Protecting Online Privacy

Have you ever wondered why you receive e-mails or Facebook ads with the latest deals on products or travel that seem to read your mind? As you click around on various sites, those sites are collecting data to help businesses target their advertising to your interests.  It's impressive technology, but other Attorneys General and I are concerned that it not go too far in compromising your personal information.

In July, I attended the CWAG (Conference of Western Attorneys General) annual meeting in Santa Fe and moderated the panel "Privacy 3.0".  This very insightful discussion covered a range of privacy issues that arise when a consumer’s online activity such as participating in a survey, shopping for a trip, or posting a favorite movie on Facebook triggers all kinds of advertising responses from companies that mine Internet data.

Shannon Smith, Washington AGO Senior Counsel and director of litigation in our Consumer Protection Division, made an excellent presentation on legal developments around data security and data breach notification. Massachusetts has adopted a rigorous new law aimed at enhancing data security that has attracted attention as well as tech-industry criticism, so many state regulators are watching their experience with the new law to see whether and how well it works!

Meanwhile, state attorneys general along with the FTC continue to look into issues that effect consumer privacy. 

CWAG has already posted a link to a video of this panel: Privacy 3.0 — Emerging Enforcement and Policy Issues here if you want to check it out.

More honors for the AGO’s Award Winning Website

Also at CWAG, I was honored to accept on behalf of our office the "WAGGY" Award for Best Use of Social Media.  The award recognizes outstanding AG web sites. This is our third WAGGY award in four years for the AGO website.

New child pornography law snags serial molester 

Under the new child pornography law that our office drafted, and which just went into effect in June, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg  recently charged a previously-convicted child molester with five counts of possessing child pornography. 

The Attorney General’s Office requested the new law this year, with the help of the King County Prosecutor’s Office and other members of my Youth Internet Safety Task Force, to assist prosecutions hampered by a series of court decisions that made it difficult to file more than a single charge against a person in possession of child pornography, even when hundreds or thousands of images were involved.  The new law also closes a loophole in the child porn possession statute which pedophiles exploited by viewing images of child sexual assault online without printing or downloading them.  A majority of these images involve kids under the age of 12, and many depict children under the age of three. 

The recent King County case illustrates exactly why our new law is needed.  The defendant was already convicted for child molestation in 1994 and for possession of child pornography in 2001, and again, he has been caught sharing such material online.  He told an investigator that, in addition to trading in gruesome illegal images, he sexually abused eight victims and avoided being caught most of the time.  (This example is consistent with research that estimates that up to 80 percent of individuals who look at images of child sexual assault are also molesting children.)

Thanks to the support of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and this year’s action by the Legislature, his sentence is double what it would have been before, and our communities will be safer with this offender behind bars.

Supreme Court rules execution can proceed 

Washington State Supreme Court issued an important opinion in July, dismissing various challenges to our state’s method of carrying out lethal injection.  At the time, the Court also lifted the stay of execution for convicted killer Cal Coburn Brown. You can watch the news conference on this case here.

Brown, 52, was convicted in December 1993 of aggravated first-degree murder in the May 24, 1991, death of Holly Washa. Brown abducted Washa, 22, as she was leaving a hotel near the SeaTac airport then raped, strangled and stabbed her.

Under state law, the date of execution automatically resets for 30 judicial days, so Brown's new execution date is set for Sept. 10, 2010.  I’m very proud of legal teams from both our Corrections and Solicitor General Divisions, who have worked tirelessly to defend the state’s authority to develop death penalty protocol.  I hope that Holly Washa’s family will finally see justice done, and be able to achieve closure, as a result of our teams’ excellent work.

“Notario” fraud threatens the livelihood of legal Latino immigrants 

A major concern for our Consumer Protection Division is the rising number of Latino residents who have legally immigrated to Washington and are doing their best to follow federal rules in order to maintain legal residence.  Many have lost thousands of dollars, their jobs and the chance to live legally in the U.S. after falling victim to “notario” fraud.  This problem stems from a common translation hitch.   In Mexico, notaries publico receive extensive legal training and are qualified to provide many legal services, while here in the United States the role of a notary public is much different, and they do not practice law.   

Immigration is one of the most complicated areas of federal law, and unqualified immigration assistants are cashing in on this definitional misunderstanding by using titles such as “notario” and “notary public” to suggest they have legal expertise that they in fact do not possess.  They end up providing inaccurate and incomplete advice and services.   The victims of these notarios are hard-working immigrants who are entitled to live and work here legally.  They are trying to comply with the complex laws that allow them to stay in this country but their efforts are sabotaged by unlicensed immigration assistants who do not know or keep up with immigration law.

To better protect and educate Latino communities about this problem, last month, the Attorney General’s Office announced three new settlements with individuals accused of illegally providing immigration advice.  We are also reaching out to our state’s Asian-American community as we pursue similar scams targeting their members.

Protecting Senior Citizens: Not all living trust scams are dead

Earlier this summer, we also took action against an Arizona company for violating the new law to crack down on “trust mill” schemes.  As you may recall, the Attorney’s Office requested this law three years ago to ensure that only legal professionals in our state can prepare estate planning documents, thus prohibiting anyone who is not a licensed attorney from marketing living trusts or wills.

We believe the Preservation Group engaged in illegal activities during seminars designed to convince senior citizens to purchase expensive living trusts by misrepresenting probate as a time-consuming process that can eat up a nest egg. 

While it is true that properly drafted and executed, a living trust may help someone avoid probate and offer other advantages, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  That’s why is it so important that anyone offering such legal advice, particularly to seniors, have a license to practice law in our state.  In this case, the seminar speakers weren’t qualified to sell estate planning documents.  What’s worse, seniors who paid up to $2,995 for living trusts were also encouraged to provide details about their finances that the salespeople used to pitch additional insurance and investment products.

The good news is, this company agreed to offer refunds to more than 60 Washington seniors who purchased living trusts.  So if you happen to know someone who attended one of these seminars, information on how to file a claim for a refund can be found here.

Some remodeling needed in the window industry 

Last fall, our CP Division reached out to the window and home-siding businesses in an effort to educate them about high-pressure pitches, inflated prices and fraudulent endorsements that are illegal and have the potential to damage the industry’s reputation.

This month, we negotiated six settlements with window businesses engaging in such tactics as: Inflating initial prices to suggest customers are receiving discounts; making unsubstantiated claims about the energy savings customers would achieve; failing to inform customers of their cancelation rights; exaggerated the health risks associated with mold that may be found around residential windows, and; claiming that a series of windows have “titanium metal reinforced frames” when they are actually made of aluminum.

These settlements are part of a government push, spearheaded by Spokane AAG Jack Zurlini, to rid the marketplace of activities that bring harm to both consumers and the many fair and honest businesses in the window industry.

Looking ahead

As always, more information on all of these cases and issues can be found on our website. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be preparing my arguments for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals re-hearing of the Farrakhan v. Gregoire felon-voting case, which is scheduled for late September.  I will also be following up on two major cases we announced this week in our Consumer Protection and Antitrust Divisions, concerning deceptive online marketing schemes and a massive price-fixing conspiracy among major manufacturers of LCD screens.  More on all these cases in our next edition!

Meanwhile, I hope you and yours are enjoying the summer.  Best wishes.

Rob McKenna
Attorney General

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